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Indian bowlers in England: A sorry tale that indicates Zaheer Khan’s decline can prove critical

Zaheer Khan played a key role in India winning the series in England in 2007 © Getty Images
Zaheer Khan played a key role in India winning the Test series in England in 2007 © Getty Images

Indian bowling in England has been perennially pedestrian — and that includes some of the greatest names to have rolled their arms over for the country. The one exception to the rule was Zaheer Khan. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the numbers and says that it is a pity that the left-arm pacer’s powers have dwindled.

The deep-rooted traditions of Indian cricket and its fans ensure relentless focus on the batsmen. Whenever we reflect on the debacles in England, the batting collapses are replayed in our minds over and over again. Batsmen remain heroes in our imagination, capable of superhuman deeds. When they trudge back slowly, failure weighing heavy on their shoulders, our hopes dashed by their premature dismissals, the sequences are impactful. They are recalled whenever the uneasy memories of defeat are stirred. Historical batting disasters like 42 all out of 1974 and zero for four of 1952 live on as painful stories of the past.

Hence, many overlook the disturbing fact that some of the English totals notched up at home against the Indian bowling attacks in the last few years read — 710 for seven, 617, 591 for six, 544, 515 and 487.

This saga has not been limited to just the last few years. The Graham Gooch extravaganza of 1990 had seen England tote up 653 for four at Lord’s. Ian Botham’s double century had piled up 594 at The Oval in 1982, while the similar feat by David Gower had ensured the mammoth 633 for five at Birmingham in 1979. Yet another double hundred, at a much slower pace by Geoff Boycott, had seen a score of 550 for four at Headingley in 1967. The tale has not been too different in the earlier years.

In other words, to prevent the story from being as long as some of those innings, Indian bowling has historically suffered in the old country. And figures, as always, eloquently echo the chronicles of catastrophe.

The greatest of names to have run in for India have been sent on a leather hunt — that too in a country where the clouds, atmosphere and pitch are rumoured to make the batsmen miserable at the wicket. With one solitary exception, any bowler who has plied his trade across two or more tours has had quite miserable results to show for his efforts.

With England believed to be the heaven for swing and seam, it will perhaps come as less of a surprise that the great Indian spinners have had a rotten time in the country. Only Bhagwath Chandrasekhar’s 31 wickets at 34 apiece and Vinoo Mankad’s 20 at 33.90 have hinted at some sort of respectability and that too only just. Otherwise, Bishan Bedi’s 35 wickets have cost 38 runs each, Srinivas Venkataraghavan’s 20 have come at 41.05, Anil Kumble’s 36 at 41.41, Harbhajan Singh’s 14 at 49.78 and Erapalli Prasanna‘s 12 at an incredible 58.08. Ravi Shastri’s 11 wickets in the land have each cost a tottering 70.63.

And no, contrary to popular belief England is not exactly spin-unfriendly. There have been plenty of spinners who have been enormously successful in the country across stretches of time and hailing from diverse lands. The names of these worthies include, and are not limited to, Wilfred Rhodes, Hedley Verity and Bill O’Reilly, to Jim Laker, Johnny Wardle, Tony Lock, Alf Valentine, Sonny Ramadhin and Hugh Tayfield, to Lance Gibbs, Ray Illingworth and Derek Underwood, to Shane Warne, Mushtaq Ahmed and Muttiah Muralitharan. It will only be fair to say that in comparison the Indian spinners have never really mastered the art of bowling in that country.

More surprisingly, in a land where swing and seam are supposed to thrive, Kapil Dev’s 43 wickets at 39.18 make for atrocious reading. Not too many Indian medium pacers have bowled in more than one series in the seam friendly England, but among those who have, Madan Lal’s 11 wickets at 47.90 continue the tale of horror, as do Abid Ali’s 11 at 47.36, S Sreesanth’s 17 at 48.88 and RP Singh’s 12 at 38.75. Even Ramkant Desai’s five Tests got him just 12 wickets at 50.16.

In general, successful Indian bowlers in England have always had to be aided by the alchemy of small sample. For instance, in 1986 an England team plunged in disarray and confusion helped Roger Binny to capture 12 wickets at 20.91, Chetan Sharma 16 at 18.75 and Maninder Singh 12 at 15.58. Similarly Ghulam Ahmed was a spot of brightness in the horrendous 1952 tour with 15 wickets at 24.73 while Venkatesh Prasad ran in with a lot of promise in his debut series of 1996 when he got 15 wickets at 25.00, and Surendranath surprised all with 16 scalps at 26.62 in 1959.  However, none of these men played another series in England.

In looking for Indian bowlers who managed to excel across several years in the country, one has to go back to the earliest days when Mohammad Nissar picked up 18 wickets in the four Tests spanning 1932 and 1936 at a thoroughly respectable 26.55.

However, the one man who really proved an exception to this rule — of perennially pathetic performances punctuated by the occasional one series wonder — was Zaheer Khan. In his eight Tests in England across three visits, he captured 31 wickets at 27.96.

It can be argued that much of his success was due to the 2007 summer. Indeed, Zaheer was rather ordinary in 2002 with 11 wickets at 43.90. Yet, he was the key factor in India’s series win in 2007, with 18 wickets at 20.33 apiece, including five for 75 at the victorious Nottingham Test. It was mainly due to his efforts that the 2007 series did not see any England total over 400. And before he hobbled off the field clutching his hamstring at Lord’s during the last tour, he had perplexed the England batting by picking up two for 18 in his 13.3 overs.

It is a major blow for India that Zaheer, the only man who seemed to have perfected the art of picking up wickets in England regularly over time, has lost his powers to such an extent that he is no longer able to nudge his way into the rather unremarkable Indian bowling line up.

When we look at the woeful numbers left in the wake of the many men who have trundled in to bowl for India in the land, the limited success of the team in England is hardly surprising.

In the current day, we may wince at Ishant Sharma’s 11 wickets at 58.18 during the previous tour. And we have good reason to. But the sad truth is that while Ishant may represent the nadir, neither the norm nor the zenith has ever been much higher for the Indians in England.

And sadly the one person who had proved to be an exception has run out of steam.

Indian bowlers in England (at least 2 series)

Bowler M Wkts Ave SR
M Nissar 4 18 26.55 42.6
Zaheer Khan 8 31 27.96 57.4
MH Mankad  6 20 33.9 93.8
BS Chandrasekhar 9 31 33.96 74.8
L Amar Singh 4 14 34 85.6
BS Bedi 12 35 38.08 89.9
N Kapil Dev 13 43 39.18 78.5
S Venkataraghavan 10 20 41.05 95.2
A Kumble 10 36 41.41 87.4
S Abid Ali 6 11 47.36 97.7
S Madan Lal 6 11 47.9 106.9
S Sreesanth 6 17 48.88 79
Harbhajan Singh 5 14 49.78 88
EAS Prasanna 5 12 58.08 121.2
R Shastri 9 11 70.63 159.4

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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