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Ishant Sharma, RP Singh, Munaf Patel: The curious case of Indian fast bowlers

The curious case of Indian fast bowlers

By Akash Kaware

If, like me, you enjoy the sight of stumps being knocked cleanly out of the ground as much as the ball flying out of the stadium, there’s a video on YouTube you must watch. Appropriately titled, “Bowled, Bowled, Bowled.” It’s basically a collection of dismissals that makes fast bowling a grand sight. If you’re an Indian cricket fan who watched the two and a half minute video, you will realize that while many Indian batsmen saw their stumps going for a walk, not one Indian bowler is seen returning the favour.

This is not to say that no Indian bowler has ever been fast enough to uproot the sticks, but somehow the absence seemed symbolic. India has always had a wealth of exotic batting talent while the spin was in very good hands till Anil Kumble retired. It still is decently good with the likes of Harbhajan Singh, Amit Mishra, Ravichandran Ashwin and Praghyan Ojha around. The fast bowling resources have been in robust health for a while, too. But there’s something every Indian fan wishes to see: a genuine quick who can strike the fear of God in the hearts and minds of the batsmen. So far the wait has been longer than the one for Halley’s Comet and seems destined to last longer!

I have nothing against the likes of Zaheer Khan & Co. They are all good bowlers, but the grouse I have against them – and this is a curious Indian phenomenon – that somehow after they make their mark on the international scene, they all seem to lose their pace. Zaheer was capable of 90-mph plus yorkers when he first came on to the scene, but within a year was down on pace.  Though, to his credit, he’s a much craftier customer now.

Ishant Sharma bowled a 152.4 kmph delivery in a CB Series match in Australia, not so long ago. Yes, that’s nearly 95 miles an hour! But now, he struggles to hit the 85 miles an hour mark.

RP Singh was never express, but he was certainly capable of the odd, sharp delivery that surprised batsmen. But he seems to have lost his nip as well.

And whoever told Munaf Patel to sacrifice pace for line and length needs to be hanged publically. I remember the first time I heard about this guy some years ago, he said in an interview that he can bowl 90-mph without even straining himself. I couldn’t wait for him to make his India debut. Yet, a few years on, he has been a complete letdown, a medium-pacer who barely touches 80 mph!

It is a strange phenomenon. Fast bowlers in all other international sides build up their pace when they start playing international cricket, but the complete opposite happens in India. Injuries, loss of form are all realities of the game, even more so for fast bowlers, but this alarming fall in pace is a worrying pattern.

Surely there’s more to fast bowling than just raw pace; swing, subtlety and accuracy are sometimes much more effective than raw pace. But a genuine quick who’s capable of roughing up batsmen is an asset every team would love to have. A battering ram like that is not only capable of taking wickets by himself but also provide huge support for the man bowling in tandem with him at the other end. History is replete with great fast bowlers hunting in pairs.

Burnout is certainly one reason. The amount of cricket India plays can break most bowlers’ back, but sacrificing pace for prolonging careers is something you’d expect 30-year olds to do, not 20-somethings like Ishant Sharma and RP Singh. Technical glitches that can creep into the bowlers’ actions can also be responsible, but I feel the most important reason for this is the coaching mindset.

Bowlers with genuine pace but somewhat less control are told to cut down on pace and learn the ‘virtues’ of line and length. While that is a good advice to give to a guy who’s basically an 82-83 mph bowler, but to give the same advice to a bowler who’s actually capable of 90-mph plus is criminal. Why not train him to increase his accuracy without sacrificing his pace? For a year after Glenn McGrath’s retirement, Brett Lee ensured that Australia didn’t miss him by providing almost similarly throttling accuracy at 90 mph. (It is instructive to note that Australia’s fortunes nosedived when Lee got injured thereafter). Why not tell the young kids to just let the ball fly and scare a few batsmen and tell them that an occasional expensive spell is okay if his improvement graph is heading northward?

The coaches don’t have just a technical job, there’s a mental aspect to fast bowling that deserves equal attention. The fear of injury prevents bowlers from operating at optimum pace, but coaches need to get the message through that if they abandon their strength for longevity, they will be half the bowlers they are and won’t last long in the team anyway. Good bowlers become better bowlers by working on their shortcomings, not by giving up on their strengths.

And finally, we need to pick the right coaches too. Venkatesh Prasad himself was a prime example of this transition from a fairly lively paceman to a medium pacer whose deliveries were only slightly faster than Kumble’s quicker one! It’s no wonder that when he was the Indian bowling coach, the pace bowlers were obsessed with slower balls at the death, when really speaking they should be aiming for the blockhole six times in an over.

Why can’t the cash-rich BCCI rope in someone like Sir Richard Hadlee? The Kiwi legend completely and successfully remodeled Shane Bond to make him less injury prone, without compromising on his pace. Or, why not get Dennis Lillee directly involved with the Indian team? That would benefit the Indian team much more than in his current role at the MRF Pace Foundation.

Having Sir Richard or Lillee to mentor the Indian fast bowlers is just the tonic Indian cricket needs.
(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would’ve been a successful international cricketer if it hadn’t been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A couple of years ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)

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