By Nishad Pai Vaidya
"It's a worry for the selectors. With Mitch not bowling well, this is our weakest attack for a long time, going back to the 1980s": Jeff Thomson during the Ashes 2010-11.
Jeff Thomson, one of most feared pacemen of all time, didn’t hide his scepticism as the Australian bowling attack struggled in the last Ashes. A side that had boasted of quality seamers over the years looked out of depth when they faced their traditional rivals in the battle for the coveted urn. There were sparks of a revival even after Thomson voiced his fears, but they weren’t sustained and fizzled out as the series progressed. Fast forward to the present day; the same team find themselves with an abundant pool of pacemen, each of whom have displayed their quality in the last few months.
A mere look at Australia’s pace bowling resources gives one the impression that they have a cushion with regards to selection matters. Even in times of crisis, they have enough quality to substitute the injured party and deliver the positive results. James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson make up their fast bowling roster for Test cricket. Shane Watson, the all-rounder, can be added to this list. Fitness permitting, he can be a very useful bowler with his movement and accuracy.
Australia’s success in the ongoing series against India is largely due to their fast bowlers. Prior to the series, the injuries to Cummins and Johnson would have worried them. All those fears have been put to rest by the comeback man, Hilfenhaus, who has risen to the challenge and bowled brilliantly.
It’s Hilfenhaus’ phenomenal spells which has blunted the famed Indian batting line-up. He has been the best of the lot. He has bowled in the right channels and got the ball to move viciously. In each of the three Tests, he has delivered crucial spells to decimate the opposition and seal the initiative for Australia. The only time the Indian batsmen looked in control of proceeding was during the first innings at Melbourne. However, Siddle’s dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar opened the floodgates and Hilfenhaus capitalised on that window of opportunity to snap five scalps.
The other Aussie fast bowlers have revolved around Hilfenhaus’ performances but struck at crucial intervals. Siddle, the second highest wicket-taker in the series, has been brilliant when he has pitched it full. He looks a completely different bowler when he gets the ball closer to the batsmen, inviting them to play on the front foot. He is evolving into a strong bowler. His bowling to the greats like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid is a sight for sore eyes.
Harris and Starc’s contributions at Perth cannot be forgotten. Harris accounted for only two wickets in the game but they were huge scalps - Tendulkar (1st innings) and Dravid (2nd innings). On the other hand, Starc’s movement complimented the pressure applied by the others. He can surprise the batsman with his bounce - as Gautam Gambhir found out in the second innings at Perth - and can also bowl a lovely in-coming delivery to the right-handers.
The injuries to Pattinson and Cummins came at a very inopportune time as they kick-started their respective Test careers with a bang. At a young age, they have displayed the ability to bowl at a serious pace and get enough movement to trouble the batsman. While Cummins’ solitary Test witnessed his precocious talent, Pattinson has had a prolonged run of success in his four games. Cricket lovers would be waiting to watch the two youngsters bowl in tandem.
As we laud the current Australian fast-bowling line-up and rave about the promise of Pattinson and Cummins, we must not forget that Watson and Johnson are recovering from injuries and waiting to wear the Baggy Green again. Watson provides tremendous balance to the Australian team and plays the role of the fifth bowler. His role isn’t limited to filling the gaps or help bowlers change ends. He has enough guile to make inroads into the opposition’s batting and that makes him a valuable asset.
Johnson may have been criticised for his loss of form, but he is the kind of a bowler who can get back into rhythm pretty soon. His spell at Perth during the Ashes 2010-11 is a prime example which came at the back of his axing from the previous Test following a wicket-less outing. When on song, he can pick up wickets in a heap to spark dramatic collapses.
Apart from the men discussed above, the likes of Dan Christian, John Hastings (all-rounders), Ben Cutting and Trent Copeland are waiting in the wings. Not much can be written about Cutting as he was injured immediately after his selection into the Australian team. Copeland debuted in Sri Lanka last year and was moderately successful. The emergence of Pattinson and Cummins may have stalled his chances of making more appearances and would remain in Australia’s plans for the future.
When one looks at the all the names mentioned above, two men are conspicuous by their absence, they are Doug Bollinger and Brett Lee. While Lee has retired from the Test arena, Bollinger hasn’t played in the classical format since December 2010. They return to the one-day fold to bolster Michael Clarke’s options. This is indicative of Australia’s depth in fast bowling resources as a quality bowler like Bollinger doesn’t find a place in the Test line-up.
The retirements of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne a few years ago may have signalled the end of an era and Australia may have stuttered a little after that. However, it is safe to say that they are back into the reckoning for world domination and are taxing before the flight towards their aims.
A new era beckons for Australia!
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 21-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.")