The focus is on pace

THE days ahead could prove exciting in the season of hope for pace in the country.

S. DINAKAR

Zaheer Khan prepares to bowl under the watchful eyes of coach Greg Chappell, kinesiologist Charles Krebs and former Australian pace ace Dennis Lillee.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

THE days ahead could prove exciting in the season of hope for pace in the country. This is also the time for culling as experience is blended with youth.

The pace breed causes astonishing turnarounds, but there is a price to pay — physically and mentally. Amidst incisive spells are injuries, burnouts, and fadeouts.

Some dreams die early on the sub-continental surfaces, some are shattered amidst the often cruel schedule, and a few crumble under the pressures of international cricket.

No other job in the game makes greater demands on the body, none requires a bigger heart.

If the composition of the Indian probables for the pre-season conditioning camp in Bangalore that included just three specialist spinners, and the earlier fitness camp for the pacemen are any indication, then pace bowling is in focus.

It is evident that Indian coach Greg Chappell seeks more depth and options in a department where the casualty rate is high. If the bench strength here is low, the team will stay down.

These are busy times in Indian cricket and by the time the season is over, the side could well possess a bowling coach, who given the demands and the needs, could be a former pace bowler.

Even in the event of the Board deciding against a full time bowling coach, we could have a scenario where the legendary Dennis Lillee and former Indian star Javagal Srinath, would spend more time with the Indian bowlers.

Both Lillee, brilliant technically, and Srinath are involved with the MRF Pace Foundation and Chappell did welcome the prospect of more interaction between the MRF and the National Cricket Academy.

We live in specialist times, and someone like Troy Cooley, England's bowling coach, has managed to change the profile of the English pace attack, where Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff have formed a mean bunch.

Lakshmipathy Balaji had a fruitful series against Pakistan after an injury lay-off.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Chappell, also a clever seamer in his time, is bound to share his wisdom with the pacemen. He could also explain the game to them from a batsman's perspective. For instance, Chappell could reveal how a batsman's mind would work in a particular situation.

The Indian pace attack should revolve around Zaheer Khan, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Irfan Pathan and Ashish Nehra, with fresher faces like Gagandeep Singh and Shib Sankar Paul willing to make a surge. And the enigmatic Ajit Agarkar is still around.

All the principal bowlers have been through injuries. None more than Zaheer Khan, who has escaped many a cricketing death. The season gone by was mixed for Zaheer. He bowled with much zest against the Aussies and the Proteas although the quality of the left-arm paceman's bowling was not reflected in his figures. The Baroda cricketer operated with increasing rhythm as the series against Australia progressed, and towards the end of the four-match series, was close to his best, bowling spiritedly and achieving movement. He then disappointed in the critical second innings as Pakistan staged a great escape in Mohali, but improved during the latter stages of the ODI series.

Zaheer needs to work on bringing the ball into the right-hander. Unlike Pathan or Nehra, Zaheer is essentially a seam bowler and his methods are different; he is the kind who will relish a harder wicket. His trademark leap is also back in place.

Balaji, returning from an abdominal injury, was the success story of 2004-05, scalping 14 Pakistanis, the most wickets by a paceman from either side in the three-Test series. The lanky bowler released the ball from a high-arm action and with a straighter wrist position, which meant he extracted more bounce. He also ran in faster and stuck to a tantalising line around the off-stump. Batsmen padding up to incoming balls discovered that Balaji could achieve two-way movement at a lively speed. There are areas though where he could further harness his skills; more use of his non-bowling arm for instance; he desires to be a yard quicker. Balaji needs to develop the yorker, especially in the latter stages of an ODI.

When Balaji and Pathan buzz around each other, the pace attack hums. It is a right-left pair that jells. It was thus unfortunate from an Indian perspective that Pathan's form dipped last season. First, a side strain kept him out of the final two Tests against Australia and when the Pakistanis arrived, Pathan appeared to run out of steam. There was a drop in his pace, but more worrying was the disappearance of the delivery that swung back into the right hander — his most potent weapon. He was, perhaps, not completely injury free. Would Pathan return with the aggression and the energy levels of 2003-04 after a stint in English county cricket?

Nehra, troubled in the past by ankle injuries, came through the pounding by Shahid Afridi & Co. better than most during a disastrous ODI series for India. He has this reputation of swinging big matches in India's favour, with a critical strike or two. Consistency and fitness will dictate the left-armer's future.

It remains to be seen whether Ajit Agarkar, who has let himself down on occasions, is able to keep younger contenders at bay. When he settles into his groove, he is among the best bowlers in the land in the off-stump corridor with natural away movement and waspish pace. But then his game can crumble so easily in the cauldron of big challenges.

Perhaps, the fallibility lies in his mind and here Chappell, with his study of human psychology, could be of immense help to Agarkar. The Mumbaikar's cricket relies on his confidence levels.

The bowling actions of the pacemen are bound to come under the scanner since they have a direct bearing on fitness. Modern biomechanical studies have revealed that the side-on technique might not actually be beneficial as this method, if not practiced to perfection, might actually end up putting more stress on the back. The front-on or the chest-on action is the preferred alternative to avoid crash-landings.

Among the mainline Indian bowlers, Zaheer has a past side-on release (semi side-on), so do Ashish Nehra and Ajit Agarkar. Balaji is essentially front-on, while Pathan is side-on, which also explains why he swings the ball more than the rest when in mood. The side-on method encourages swing, while pacemen with a front-on action generally depend more on seam movement. If bio-mechanist Ian Frazer, recommended by Chappell, assists the Indian team at some stage, then the bowlers are bound to benefit. It must be mentioned here that the pacemen have been guided by Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation.

The ICC rule changes for the ODIs could also change the dynamics of a side's pace attack. A team's strategy could have someone with more ability with the shiny ball given a fling in the early overs. He could then be substituted with a bowler more adept at reverse swing.

Ajit Agarkar can be incisive on his day, while Ashish Nehra is capable of giving crucial breaks.-AP

India, however, regularly finds itself without a bowler who can get the older ball to crash through defences. India needs the Zaheer of 2000, when he first burst into the international scene and delivered deadly toe-crushers.

It remains to be seen how the changes in field restrictions, with two blocks of five overs following the first 10 at the captain's disposal, will work out. It could cut both ways, and in this scenario, India does need to unearth bowlers who can get the ball to bend back.

Among those bowlers in the fringes, Punjab's Gagandeep Singh and Bengal's Paul — both have turned in some strong domestic performances — are obviously front-runners. The strongly built Gangandeep is a brisk paceman, who can achieve lateral movement. And Paul is a bustling customer, who keeps coming at the batsmen.

Then there are the hard-working kind, the effort bowlers such as Delhi's Amit Bhandari, who has performed well for India `A'. Railways' Harvinder Singh is on a comeback trail. On the Sri Lankan tour of 2001, he was quite the most impressive bowler at the `nets,' but froze when picked for a Test, pitching short and losing control. He is another bowler, who could benefit mentally from the Chappell influence.

Among the exciting young prospects, Punjab's Vikram Rajvir Singh and U. P. left-armer Rudra Pratap Singh, currently in Australia on a Border-Gavaskar scholarship, bristle with promise. The strapping, big-built Vikram, apart from gaining disconcerting lift, has a useful yorker in his pocket. Tamil Nadu's Rajamani Jesuraj's story — his handicapped father confined to bed he was brought up by his brothers — is an engrossing one of struggle. Here is a boy from the Chennai outskirts who stared at the bright, bold lights of the city and refused to blink. Jesuraj also has the habit of hitting the seam with regularity. And the progress Munaf Patel makes in his career could hinge on the use of the non-bowling arm.

The youngsters will have to realise that the trick is as much about finding the right areas as bowling with velocity. Actually, the seniors could take the cue too.