Mohammed Siraj (centre) and the Indian team after the second Test between India and England at Lord’s in London, August 16 (Photo: Getty Images)
EARLIER THIS YEAR at the World Test Championship final in England, India were faced with a conundrum. In overcast conditions, do they go ultra-aggressive and pickf our fast bowlers along with the spin of one of either R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja? Or do they become a bit cautious and go with three fast bowlers and two spinners, the world’s best and probably second-best spinner, whose secondary skill, batting, could also cushion India’s dodgy batting?
Virat Kohli chose caution. As the result of that match showed, he might have picked two great horses in Ashwin and Jadeja but they were racing on the wrong course. Beleaguered further by little time for preparation and the issue of the malfunctioning middle order, India lost the final.
The selection call over its spinners must have dogged the team at the start of the ongoing series against England. How do you drop Ashwin, inarguably the best spinner in the world today; or Jadeja, a great spinner in Indian conditions and an underrated batsman abroad? And if you have to choose between the two, who do you opt for: the better spinner or the better batsman?
Having both spinners in the starting 11 along with three fast bowlers is not a poor bowling attack by any stretch of imagination. Earlier generations would kill for such an attack. But it is the fast-bowling players now on offer warming the bench that made this decision so difficult.
In the first match against England, Virat Kohli took the tough call of dropping Ashwin, a decision that expectedly attracted criticism. Choosing Jadeja over Ashwin and bringing Shardul Thakur, a fast bowler who bats a little, to join the three more regular fast bowlers—Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj—Kohli would have had a difficult time explaining his decision had the bowlers not come so close to defeating England before rain intervened.
In the second match at Lord’s, there would be no days lost to rain. Even though the pitch was less green and more batting-oriented, and the veteran Ishant Sharma replaced the injured Thakur, the new pace quartet out-bowled England in England. There were moments of breathtaking beauty: balls that pitched one place but moved gently away or in, and sometimes just holding their lines; there were moments of brute force: balls that crashed into helmets and knocked the wind out of batsmen; and there were limited-over specialities: the slower balls and the toe-crushing yorkers. There were cold-hearted stares and chatter, there was bullying and the swagger. And also moments of mini theatre, like when Bumrah went after England’s celebrated bowler James Anderson with a 10-ball over aimed to hurt and unravel the mind.
Indian teams used to construct their wins on the formula of erecting mammoth scores and then using the pressures of the scoreboard and the guile of its spinners to prise out 20 wickets. In the Kohli era, with a vibrant core of fast bowlers emerging, the formula has been altered to a more bowling-dependent one
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The fifth day began with English victory a most likely outcome, and a draw, if achieved, a saving grace for India. But the pace quartet blew the opposition away in under two sessions to register a remarkable win.
Indian fast bowlers have been gaining admirers over recent times. But never has the gulf between them and one of the top fast-bowling nations been this evident. The Indian pace quartet were faster, meaner, fitter and more skilled than their English counterparts.
This is a far cry from the 1970s when Sunil Gavaskar once shared the new ball with Eknath Solkar, or when Sourav Ganguly routinely did the honours in the 1990s. Watching the speed gun at the end of every ball was an exercise in humility for Indian fans, made worse by the fast-bowling riches just across the border in Pakistan. Indian teams just did not have fast bowlers, and when they did, it was usually just a solitary fast bowler toiling in a team of spinners, and bowlers whose pace one described with euphemisms such as ‘medium’ or ‘military medium’. There were no perfume balls or at-the-throat balls. Indians were too small, too nice, too deficient in their diets, as the theories went, to have a genuine fast bowler.
Indian teams constructed their wins on the formula of erecting mammoth scores and then using the pressures of the scoreboard and the guile of its spinners to prise out 20 wickets. But this formula came undone the moment the team travelled outside Asia. You could rarely erect such scores and no spinner whose name was not Shane Warne could operate as strike bowlers.
But in the Kohli era, with a vibrant core of fast bowlers emerging, the formula has been altered. He has moved the team away from the Indian tradition of being more batting-oriented to a more bowling-dependent one. The team does not look to erect mammoth scores any more, rarely registering the kind of 500-plus scores India routinely did in the 1990s and 2000s. And even in bowling-friendly conditions, where past captains would choose to bolster the batting by picking an extra batsman, Kohli usually prefers the firepower of an extra fast bowler. Fast bowling over runs. Aggression over caution.
And it has worked. The fast-bowling revolution in the Kohli era has ushered forth India’s brightest moments abroad, from two series victories in Australia to wins in England and South Africa. Even when the team has lost, often because of batting failures, the fast bowlers have ensured the loss is much smaller than what the scoreboards suggest.
In a delicious twist of irony, India’s most celebrated bowling attack before this era was another quartet—that of the 1960s and 1970s spinners E Prasanna, S Venkataraghavan, B Chandrasekhar and Bishen Singh Bedi. Each one was a bit different from the other, and their greatest stage, the dusty pitches of the subcontinent.
This new quartet’s stage is abroad. And like the earlier quartet of spinners, this one too is a complete package in itself, each one a bit different, yet complementing one another, as a bowling group. From Bumrah’s awkward action and smarts learned in limited-overs cricket to Shami’s classical action, from Sharma’s sharp bounce to Siraj’s ability to bowl long probing spells, not to mention their ability to go upwards of 140 kmph and to bounce out the opposition. The presence of Umesh Yadav on the bench, Shardul Thakur, Bhuvneshwar Kumar who claims he wants to play for the Test team, Navdeep Saini and an array of fast bowlers rising through the ranks makes the fast-bowling options a truly frightening one.
Along with Ashwin and Jadeja, India’s is without doubt the best bowling team now. They have the aura of world beaters of the past such as the Australian team under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.
But not everything is perfect. They would ideally like a fast-bowling all-rounder like Hardik Pandya. The batting is becoming a bit suspect too. Even if these issues are not fixed anytime soon, given that most of the bowlers are just in their twenties and early thirties, and many more are coming up the ranks, India is on its way to becoming the most dominant fast-bowling team of this decade.