The way to wicket, wicket ways

Bhuvneshwar Kumar... a consistent seamer.-PTI

Variety in bowling is the key if the Indians are to fare well in Australia. The selectors are planning to experiment in the home series against Sri Lanka. It should give some indication of the vision they have for the World Cup, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Sunil Gavaskar made a pertinent point at a seminar recently. India needed bowlers who can take 20 wickets, he observed. Interesting indeed! Are bowlers not supposed to take wickets? How does a team win if the bowlers do not bowl the opposition out? Good teams have always had a decent balance of batsmen and bowlers. Is India a good team is a matter of debate.

The Indian attack, in the past few years, has been far from inspiring. The lack of sting in pace and spin has been so apparent that many former players have found the standard mediocre. When Gavaskar shows concern it is time for the rest to take notice. But then the team management or the selectors can only pick the best from the options available. And there are not many who are promising on this account.

Given the fact that 27 teams compete in the Ranji Trophy championship, the selectors should ideally have a pool of 80 fast bowlers and 50 spinners, a total of 130. To pick seven from this pool, five seamers and two spinners, of international quality should not involve rocket science. Obviously, the National selectors have a task on hand for they have to identify the potential wicket-takers. And the pool shrinks menacingly when they get down to the business of choosing such bowlers.

It is often said that seamers stand a better chance of excelling when not bowling in the sub-continent, especially the seam and swing tribe, who look forward to tours of England, New Zealand and Australia. But let it be remembered that Kapil Dev gave some of his best performances on the placid tracks of India rather than overseas.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja... first choice spinners.-AP

The break-up of Kapil’s figures shows that he had 219 wickets at home out of a career haul of 434, with his best of nine for 83 coming in Ahmedabad against the mighty West Indies in 1983. “One had to work hard and innovate more when bowling in India,” was Kapil’s assessment of his success on home turf. Hard work and innovation were the key components of Kapil’s ability to slice through the opposition.

Wicket-taking is an art and the modern bowlers have clearly lost the striking power and the craft of luring the batsmen into error. Seamers and spinners prefer to play the waiting game rather than look to compel a mistake from the batsmen. “It has got to do with the number of one-day matches that these bowlers play these days. Even the coaches and captains prefer it that way. You can’t make an impact if you look to contain the batsmen,” says Maninder Singh, one of the finest spinners who concentrated on taking wickets.

It is a combination of lack of talent and the modern attitude towards the game. Most of the academies encourage the bowlers to concentrate on restrictive measures. “Spinners don’t flight and the seamers don’t experiment. Consistency is missing,” notes Madan Lal, who was known for his accuracy and ability to study the batsmen before exploiting their weak areas. It thus becomes imperative for the batsmen to provide a huge cushion for their bowlers. This tactic also does not work all the time because the batsmen too suffer from inconsistency, especially when playing overseas. The failure of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli in England was a glaring example of how loss of form of crucial batsmen can impact a team’s chances.

The Indian attack needs to buck up, especially with the conditions entirely different from the sub-continent. Says former seamer Venkatesh Prasad, “You have to learn to experiment and adapt. The key to success at the international level is variety in your bowling and sadly this is one aspect we have ignored for a long time. Unless you keep the batsmen guessing you can’t get them out. It is bowlers who win you matches and I am confident we have the strength to do that.”

Sunil Joshi, with an experience of 15 Tests and 160 first-class matches, expects the Indian attack to stand up to the challenges but has a few suggestions. “We don’t have a pathway for spinners. The concerned people (who train them) should have relevant knowledge and guide them properly. We don’t give proper exposure to our youngsters.”

Amit Mishra is the backup spinner, but of late, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav have also come into the frame.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Elaborating his point, Joshi says, “Looking at the larger picture, most of our young spinners have not played hard cricket against hard opponents. They must learn to develop their skills, learn to attack more, and it can’t happen overnight. We have to be patient with this lot because they have to bowl to big teams not just West Indies or New Zealand.”

Looking ahead, Joshi adds, “We are yet to focus on the World Cup where we will need wicket-takers. And that can happen only if you have a plan in place. I am not sure we have identified the bowlers for the World Cup yet. Why did we rest Ashwin for the series against the West Indies? If he is our best then he should be playing. Doing well can boost your confidence. Of course, we will need an in-form Ashwin in Australia because the grounds there are big. One can flight the ball. I am happy with the competition now. It is good to see Axar (Patel) in the team to challenge (Ravindra) Jadeja.”

A weak bowling attack could spell disaster for India on Australian pitches. Prasad feels, “We are not consistent in anything, in hitting the length, using the bouncers well, exploiting the movement in day-night games, having variations like the slower one and bouncers. It is a hard job and we have to have mentally strong bowlers. We have to have a plan including field placements, especially during powerplay. Remember, in India the ball grips, but it comes on nicely in Australia, which means the bowler will need to hit the deck consistently.”

The recent ODI against the West Indies at Kochi showed the Indian attack in poor light. It was the same story during the Test series in England. Variety is the key if the Indians are to fare well in Australia. The selectors are planning to experiment in the home series against Sri Lanka. It should give some indication into the vision they have for the World Cup.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni draws his strength from the consistent Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the ever-trying Mohammed Shami. Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Bhuvneshwar and Shami complement each other even as the team looks to Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma as a backup with Ashish Nehra as the dark horse along with Ishwar Pandey. The injury-prone Varun Aaron has to be used sparingly. But Bhuvneshwar is the central figure in the Indian scheme for his craft and consistency.

The spinners pick themselves with R. Ashwin, Amit Mishra and Ravindra Jadeja forming the trio. The selectors’ search for a surprise weapon cannot be ruled out with Karn Sharma, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav being fast tracked this season.