The curious case of Indian fast men

Former India fast bowlers, Venkatesh Prasad and Javagal Srinath, feel there's no substitute for hard work.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

In the past, Irfan Pathan, V. R. V. Singh, R. P. Singh, S. Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, L. Balaji, Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma and most importantly Zaheer, have all had their moments torn between self-doubts and speed. Fast bowling as a rule comes with the fine-print of injuries and the Indian pacers seem to suffer the worst. K. C. Vijaya Kumar writes.

Zaheer Khan seemingly did everything right by his own yardsticks in the weeks leading to the first Test at Lord's. He cleared his fitness test at Bangalore's National Cricket Academy. And true to his style in recent times, he fired a few verbal volleys at the opposition's key player, in this case England skipper Andrew Strauss.

Even after Strauss stroked a hundred for Somerset against India in the warm-up game at Taunton, Zaheer spoke about the uncertainty in the England skipper's mind. On July 21, while the cricket world nursed romance and numbers in equal measure as the 2000th Test chimed in at Lord's, Zaheer was at it again — making a bunny out of a tentative Strauss. India's spearhead scalped Alastair Cook and Strauss and at 62 for two, England was staring at its tipping point.

Unfortunately for India the reverse happened as Zaheer clutched his hamstring and walked away. A combined spell of 13.3-8-18-2 turned dead with its shadow on unfulfilled promises and unsung menace. With a tally of 546 wickets in Tests and ODIs, Zaheer has emerged as India's go-to man while Harbhajan Singh is yet to fully step into Anil Kumble's shoes.

Sadly, a string of injuries have plagued Zaheer right through his career. Before leaving for London, Zaheer had spent long weeks at the NCA while India was busy in the West Indies. A sore ankle gradually healed, a few balls were bowled gingerly and in the days ahead of the selectors' meeting at Chennai for the England series, Zaheer was steaming in at the nets and bowling well.

The optimism has now given way to despair as Zaheer specifically and Indian fast bowlers in general have suffered the horrors while their bodies rebelled at inopportune times. The NCA has witnessed the medley of anguish, hope, relief and joy as various speedsters went through their rehabilitation stints. In the past, Irfan Pathan, V.R.V. Singh, R.P. Singh, S. Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, L. Balaji, Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma and most importantly Zaheer, have all had their moments torn between self-doubts and speed.

Fast bowling as a rule comes with the fine-print of injuries. Dennis Lillee in his classic ‘The Art of Fast Bowling', wrote: “Choosing a career in fast bowling is like committing the body in a masochistic manner to day after day on the rack, interspersed with periods of ‘relaxation' in the ring with Muhammad Ali. The constant sprinting, twisting, stretching and pounding that is part and parcel of being a quickie really puts the body to a stern test."

A body-wrenching endeavour can get worse when you factor in an Indian bowler's workload that spreads across domestic cricket, Tests, ODIs, Twenty20s and the annual Indian Premier League in the sweaty months of April and May. The off-season now exists as a myth that had its roots in a pastoral past. Players like Zaheer inevitably suffer and perhaps it got worse in recent times because of the World Cup and IPL coming too close for comfort with its attendant stress patterns governed by patriotism in one and impatient team owners in the other.

Javagal Srinath, who is the bridge between Kapil Dev's generation and the current one helmed by Zaheer, said: “You have to tread a careful line with Zaheer and you should also understand that he is at an age (32) where he is bound to suffer the odd injury. He has bowled a lot, World Cup, IPL. We have to handle him carefully. He needs to get enough time for rest and recuperation.”

The packed schedule with its rush through airport lounges is one part of the reason behind constant break-downs. Srinath and his former pace bowling partner Venkatesh Prasad pointed out that the right preparation or the lack of it can also cause injuries. “This is a Catch-22 situation. The more you bowl, the better you get. And the more you bowl there is also a chance of getting injured.

The key is to bowl a lot of overs at the age when your muscles are developing. In their time, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Wasim Akram played county cricket and that meant bowling a lot many overs. In a season when you bowl about 600 overs that helps and when you play the longer format you are ready for your spells. I strongly believe that between the age of 22 to 25, you have to bowl at least 1500 overs. It is a specific even I may have done. Look at guys like Sreesanth and Ishant, ideally I would like them to bowl in county cricket. Even Zaheer felt the improvement after his county stint,” Srinath said.

India's former bowling coach Prasad questioned the methods followed by the fast-tribe in the lead up to matches. “At present bowlers spend a lot of time in the gym. Nothing wrong with that but they also have to bowl long spells. There is this trend at nets these days where bowlers keep a count on the number of balls they bowl. It does not work that way. You have to condition your body and tune it to bowling long spells. If you bowl a few balls in the nets and then try to bowl a long spell in a Test match, the body will react. In the nets you have to bowl at least for an hour at maximum intensity.

With tight schedules I also agree that if you are bowling long spells in matches, you can't go flat out in the nets all the time but a balance has to be struck between gym sessions, bowling in the nets, long spells in matches and in scheduling,” Prasad said.

Prasad said that he and Srinath used to bowl for hours in the nets and he also drew hope from Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar, the two men who sparkled with the ball at Lord's while India hurtled to defeat. “Ishant Sharma bowls a lot in the nets, at least for an hour. He bowls of his regular long run-up and that's why he does not suffer many injuries while playing matches. However I find it perplexing that he took a break after lunch at Lord's. I don't know from where that came. Praveen Kumar for instance, bowls a lot in domestic cricket and that's why in a Test, he can bowl a lot,” Prasad said.

The fear about injury and the seeming dichotomy between pace and accuracy that confronts a fast bowler is a truth that Srinath is willing to admit but he added that the complexity can be tackled. “There is always this dilemma in fast bowling, sacrificing pace for accuracy. But why do you sacrifice pace? Why can't you have both? It is because if a bowler doesn't have enough overs under his belt, his action is not well set and then when he tries to bowl extra quick, his action changes and that affects him. But if you have bowled a lot, your action is set and along with that you can increase your pace without sacrificing accuracy and you can increase your speed till your turn 30. And along with that when you work out then you add more strength and stimulus to increase your pace,” Srinath said.

Bharat Arun, former India bowler and current coach at the NCA, said that injury-prevention boils down to fine preparation coupled with an effective change in the fitness culture among youngsters. “There is an inherent risk in fast bowling. Injuries happen when you bowl fast for too long. The key is to prepare the body well for the rigours of fast bowling and then you minimise the chance of injuries. In India, physical conditioning at a young age is not part of our culture, though it is slowly changing. That's why at the NCA, we teach the scientific methods of training for the under-16 and under-19 batches so that the players are ready,” Arun said.

There are no easy answers yet but solutions will evolve if fast bowlers manage to find enough rest between their heavy workloads and some of them also need to shed their insecurities. A leading Indian bowler was so keen on the England tour that he has risked his soft tennis-elbow. With a bigger crop of fast bowlers emerging, except for Zaheer, the rest are not assured of their berths in the Indian team and that often means ignoring that niggle which might weigh you down in the long run.

* * * No stone left unturned

In a year marred by sad whispers that turned into a bitter truth about match fixing, the National Cricket Academy offered hope and a bright light on the future. Led by the then chairman Raj Singh Dungarpur and director Hanumant Singh, the NCA was unveiled in 2000 with its campus wedged into Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium while the adjacent KSCA (B) Ground offered extra space for the trainees.

More than a decade has passed and change has seeped in to the academy. Its founding fathers — Dungarpur and Hanumant Singh — are no more and even the famous Border Gavaskar Scholarship that the NCA in conjunction with the Board of Control for Cricket in India, gave away to talented youngsters for a training stint at the Australian Cricket Academy, has been scrapped. Incidentally Ambati Rayudu was the first recipient of the scholarship.

However certain traits are set in stone: Fine-tuning the skill-sets of junior cricketers through the under-16 and under-19 camps in the summer months; Standardising coaching patterns all over India by having regular refresher courses for the men who mentor grassroots cricket; monitor and assess the fitness levels of the Indian cricketers and remain the last voice on their availability for the muscle-sapping grind of international cricket. The last mentioned has lured maximum attention and prior to an important series, the media run around in circles to get information on the fitness updates of players ranging from a Virender Sehwag to a Cheteshwar Pujara.

Omerta, the code of silence, is practised at the academy and no one will comment on the rehabilitation stint of various players. Finally a press release from the BCCI's Mumbai head-quarters will throw light on the progress made by the concerned player with regard to his sore limb or bruised ligament or healing bone.

Piecing together information gathered over many years, it is understood that once a player pulls up with an injury, he reports to the academy for an early assessment. The physio at the NCA, currently Nitin Patel, who was earlier with the World Cup winning Indian team, will monitor the extent of the injury with the aid of x-rays and scans conducted in a city hospital and advice the specifics of the rehabilitation process that include time-frame, exercises, the needed physiotherapy and a tentative date for a preliminary fitness test. Informal discussions are also held with the involved doctors, be it Dr. Anant Joshi at Mumbai or Dr. Andrew Wallace in London, the latter being the preferred surgeon for a clutch of Indian players ever since Sachin Tendulkar underwent a surgery for a tennis elbow.

If constant physiotherapy is required then the player stays back at the academy and undergoes the daily sessions before going back to his home-base where his State team physio will monitor his exercise routines. Once the rehabilitation process is over, the player returns to the NCA and undergoes a string of fitness tests, which is a closely guarded secret while the media clutch at straws. The tests are not just about the cricketer's fluency in his relevant expertise in batting or bowling, they are also about finding the player's ability to sprint, field well, catch and throw balls from the deep.

The report is then sent to the BCCI for the reference of the administrators and most importantly the selectors and a call is made on whether the cricketer is available for selection and will last the distance on a rigorous tour. And when a player, after being cleared by the academy, picks up an injury on tour and struggles, questions are raised about the fitness yardsticks in Indian cricket's finishing school but the truth is that a player's fitness in controlled conditions and in the stressed out atmosphere of a match situation are completely different propositions. Sadly packed schedules mean that there are not enough warm-up games on a tour and at times players do come in from the cold for a long series like it happened with Zaheer Khan despite the left-arm seamer having cleared all the tests at the NCA.