There are fast bowlers, but will they last?

Why is it that with close to 15 fast bowlers in the country, the captain of the Indian team feels he has nobody at his disposal, forcing him to call Zaheer the Sachin of Indian bowling? Rajeev Viswanathan has a pertinent question.

The BCCI has released the contracts of 37 players for the coming season and it was intriguing to see the number of fast bowlers in the list. Grade A has Zaheer Khan, which was predictable considering his track record over the last decade. But, interestingly, Irfan Pathan, on the basis of his one-day performances, has got into Grade B along with Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma. Grade C has Vinay Kumar, Munaf Patel, Abhimanyu Mithun, Varun Aaron, Ashoke Dinda, Parveen Kumar and L. Balaji, while S. Sreesanth and R. P. Singh have missed out.

This list has been an eye-opener for people who follow Indian cricket. What it shows is that there are close to 15 fast bowlers in India if we include bowlers like Parwinder Awana and Dhawal Kulkarni, who are not in the BCCI list. This begs the question as to how in spite of so many fast bowlers in the country the selection committee struggles to pick a set of five of them in a squad of 16. The South Africa tour is just a year away and one is not even thinking about that.

There was a time during the Kumble-Harbhajan era when fast bowlers were not important in home conditions. In the 90s Kumble alone was enough to run through the opposition. Times have changed. Kumble has retired. Harbhajan is fighting with Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha for a place in the side. The present situation is such that spinners alone are not enough. The fast bowlers are also needed to bowl out opponents in Test matches.

This is where skipper Mahendra Singh’s Dhoni’s statement at the end of the second Test against New Zealand in Bangalore recently assumes significance. He was not happy with the track which had a lot in it for the fast bowlers. The New Zealand fast bowlers relished the conditions and gave the home team’s batting unit a real scare. Dhoni’s reaction made a couple of things clear. First, Dhoni had no confidence in his fast bowlers to exploit the conditions even against an average New Zealand batting unit. Secondly, he needed a turning track like the one in Hyderabad which had bounce too for spinners Ashwin and Ojha, with relatively no work for the fast bowlers.

Now why is it that with close to 15 fast bowlers in the country, the captain of the Indian team feels he has nobody at his disposal, forcing him to call Zaheer the Sachin of Indian bowling? While Zaheer can take it as a huge compliment he would be wondering whether his position is similar to that of Sachin’s in the 90s where he alone had to carry the burden of the Indian batting.

How come the rest of the fast bowlers are not able to pull their weight? Compare this list to the time when Sourav Ganguly was the captain at the start of the decade (2000-2010). He had only Javagal Srinath, Ajit Agarkar, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer followed by Irfan and Balaji at the fag end of his tenure. In spite of this, Sourav had drawn the series against Australia and England. Compare this to what happened last season under Dhoni’s captaincy. During that period even Sourav was handicapped by injuries to his key fast bowlers. But they recovered to resume national duty.

Things have changed with the advent of the IPL. Most of the fast bowlers are happy bowling four overs, getting hit all over the park on flat decks and getting paid handsomely over a two-month period. How else can one explain the predicament that the Indian captain is facing at the moment? Zaheer Khan breaking down at Lord’s on that fateful first day morning of the first Test caught Dhoni completely unanwares. He is still struggling to get quality and fit fast bowlers on the field. If he feels that the spinners alone can take the 20 wickets required to win on turning tracks at home in the eight Test matches lined up for the season, he might have to revisit that strategy. Fast bowlers might have to pull their weight as well keeping in mind England and Australia’s strong batting line-ups even considering both teams’ vulnerability against spin on turning tracks.

Let us look at some of the fast bowlers who will have to withstand the rigours of the whole season on flat and turning tracks. Zaheer is not geting any younger, Ishanth is recovering from injury, Umesh Yadav is young, fit and fast but inexperienced in these conditions. Varun Aaron has a recurring back injury though he is capable of bowling at good speeds. Pathan, Praveen Kumar and Vinay Kumar with speeds at 130 kph are effective only with the new ball. Sreesanth, R. P. Singh and Munaf, once the spearheads, are seen only in the IPL. The only pacer who has not got a chance is Ashoke Dinda. In spite of being the highest wicket-taker in two consecutive Ranji seasons and with a seven-wicket burst this year against South Zone in the semifinals of the Duleep Trophy, he must feel aggrieved. Though he is very fit, because of his inexperience one will have to wait and watch before drawing conclusions as speed alone is not the answer against high quality batting line-ups. The selectors might have committed a blunder by not picking him a year earlier.

So when the new set of selectors sit down to pick a squad they will have their task cut out. Not picking spinners against England in the practice match alone will not help. England has done its preparations in right earnest, training in Dubai against special bowling machines to play the turning ball. Losses against Pakistan and Sri Lanka on turning tracks followed by surrendering the series and the number one Test ranking to South Africa must have really hurt England. Its fast bowlers along with off-spinner Graeme Swann will be itching to have a go at the Indian batting line-up.

The selectors would be well served to keep in mind not just the first two Test matches against England, but also the whole season.

The Indian team is going through a transition phase in the batting line-up. Keeping this in mind Dhoni will know that taking 20 wickets cheaply would be paramount. He would need the best set of fast bowlers in the squad and in the reserves to complement the spinners even though he is desperate for turning tracks.