The challenge will be greater

Zaheer Khan will be the lynchpin. He can swing the new ball both ways, seam it around and deliver at any stage of the innings. Given his versatility, the batsmen can seldom feel settled against this compelling bowler.-AP

In the ICC World Cup 2011, Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel have the deceptive Praveen Kumar and the left-arm swing bowler Ashish Nehra for company. The pace pack is not without credentials but could be tested in the cauldron, writes S. Dinakar.

The pitches could be placid and the weather hot and dry. Yet, pace bowling might have a significant role to play during India's campaign in the ICC World Cup 2011 (February 19-April 2).

Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel are running hot in South Africa, exploiting conditions favourable to seam and swing bowling. But the challenge will be greater for the duo in the premier one-day competition in the sub-continent. Here, even the meanest of pacemen are often fodder for the batsmen.

In the World Cup, Zaheer and Munaf will have the deceptive Praveen Kumar and the left-arm swing bowler Ashish Nehra for company. The pace pack is not without credentials but could be tested in the cauldron.

Zaheer will be the lynchpin. He can swing the new ball both ways, seam it around and deliver at any stage of the innings. Given his versatility, the batsmen can seldom feel settled against this compelling bowler.

In how he copes with the pressures of the World Cup will be Zaheer's biggest test. As a spearhead, he shoulders immense responsibility on what could essentially be flat decks. But then, this wily pacemen has plenty going for him.

Zaheer, 32, is vastly experienced with 247 scalps in 179 ODIs at 29.69 (economy rate: 4.90). Not surprisingly, he is crafty.

Zaheer harnesses the left-armer's angle from over the wicket to the right-hander, angling the delivery across or bringing it in to put the seeds of doubts in the batsman's mind. Once the batsman becomes tentative in his footwork, Zaheer strikes.

A complete bowler these days, Zaheer operates as effectively against the left-hander by taking the ball away from over-the-wicket. Bowling this delivery mixed with a bunch of balls that straighten or come in is quite difficult. But then, if the skipper or the situation demands, Zaheer can operate with verve from round-the-wicket, getting the delivery to seam away, swing back or climb at the batsman. In the end overs, he mixes his pace and alters length.

Although he can still reverse the ball, Zaheer's yorker is not as potent as it used to be in his early days as a fast bowler with exceptional air-speed. But then, most of his deliveries are on the money these days.

Munaf too has journeyed from being an express paceman to one who can bowl with remarkable control. However, he does not possess as many gifts as Zaheer does. For instance, Munaf hardly swings the ball. He is predominantly a seam bowler who hits the deck, is accurate and unrelenting.

Munaf shared the new ball with Zaheer in the ongoing ODI series in South Africa on pitches offering bounce and seam movement. But then, his role could be that of a support seamer on batsman-friendly tracks of the sub-continent during the World Cup.

Running hot in South Africa. Munaf Patel celebrates with team-mate Suresh Raina after India's victory in the second One-Day International at the Wanderers.-AP

He gives little away as the first change bowler, even if the Power Play overs are in play. Munaf provides little width to the batsman and often operates at a back-of-a-length from where it can be difficult for the batsmen to drive him off either foot.

Munaf seldom strays from his line of choice — on or just outside the off-stump — from where his leg and off-cutters carry a greater threat. If the batsman does not pick Munaf's seam movement, he is in for trouble. The paceman has won plenty of leg-before decisions with the delivery that seams in.

This lanky paceman with a high-arm action can surprise the batsmen with bounce too. The Munaf of today can bring in subtle changes of pace, which is a key ingredient in limited overs bowling. And he responds better to stressful situations.

Apart from getting a look-in in the first 15 overs, Munaf could have a key role to play in tandem with a spinner during the often game-deciding middle overs. The 27-year-old bowler has a fair record in the ODIs. He has picked up 60 wickets in 51 matches at 29.81 (economy rate: 4.74).

A couple of years ago, there was a phase when Munaf was beset with self doubts and fitness issues. Now, he has left that worrying period behind him and is once again expressive with the sphere.

Former India coach Greg Chappell deserves much credit for Munaf's development as a pace bowler. The Australian realised that Munaf did not quite have the body to bowl consistently fast and turned him into an accurate medium pacer who struck with his bounce and seam movement. Chappell was criticised by some but his decision cannot be faulted. Munaf is less prone to breaking down now and is operating with control and confidence.

He will have to lift his levels of fielding though and seek to contribute more with the bat if the need arises.

Nehra should seek to do the same. This long-serving left-arm paceman — the 31-year-old Nehra has 153 victims in 115 ODIs at 31.32 (economy rate: 5.19) — is India's most trusted bowler at the death. He has a telling yorker and mixes this delivery effectively with some well-directed short-pitched stuff. Unlike his left-arm pace partner Zaheer, Nehra does not quite seam the ball. He is a conventional swing bowler who can make the batsmen hurry with their strokes with his pace and has this habit of claiming crucial wickets.

There have been times when Nehra has gone for some runs. But this has to be seen in the context of when he bowls. He has the demanding and invariably thankless job of operating in the end overs, so there will be days when he will prove expensive.

Praveen Kumar (left) is a slippery bowler with a quick arm action and dexterous wrist. He can swing the white ball both ways prodigiously, strike telling blows with the new ball. Ashish Nehra (right) is India's most trusted bowler at the death. He has a telling yorker and mixes this delivery effectively with some well-directed shortpitched stuff.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Another swing bowler, Praveen Kumar, was a marginal choice ahead of Santhakumaran Sreesanth for a place in the World Cup squad. How well he recovers from an elbow injury will be critical to Praveen's success in the World Cup.

He is a slippery bowler with a quick arm action and dexterous wrist. Praveen can swing the white ball both ways prodigiously, strike telling blows with the new ball. He is a talented paceman who can also bowl cross-seam and get the ball to land on the side rather than the seam. This explains why he gets the ball to skid off the surface.

Although bothered by fitness concerns, the 24-year-old bowler (57 wickets in 48 ODIs at 33.57; economy rate: 5.07) has been a valuable member of the Indian pace attack in this format.

Will the Indian pace pack sting in the World Cup? It will have to rise to the occasion.