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The Ace of Pace

India with four premier fast bowlers has now become the best pace bowling nation in the world. Patriot analyses how

Indian cricket has always been dominated by batting superstars, be it Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid or Sourav Ganguly, and now Virat Kohli. But what about bowlers? Well, Indian bowling has been always dominated by spinners. Be it the iconic spin bowling quartet of Prasanna, Chandrashekhar, Bedi and Venkatraghavan in the 60’s and 70’s to Kumble and Harbhajan more recently.

But the one criticism of Indian cricket that has always persisted is that it hasn’t produced enough dangerous fast bowlers considering the large talent pool of players in the domestic circuit. The only noteworthy pacers that India had were Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan, and they too were years apart. We did produce medium pacers, but never anyone who could rattle the opposition with their express pace.

In the recently concluded pink ball Test match, however, the picture was quite different. Out of all the 20 Bangladesh wickets taken by India, 19 were taken by the Indian pace trio of Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav. In fact, in the second innings the spinners didn’t bowl only one over, and all 10 wickets were taken by the trio of pacers.

Not just the wickets, but there were four people who were hit on the helmet by severe bouncers from the Indian pacers, as Bangladesh had to use four concussion substitutes. And the way Bangladesh was batting, it seemed like they were literally scared to face them, as they were either looking to duck the ball, and play on the backfoot and nudge the ball here and there.

In the whole series vs Bangladesh, 33 of the 40 wickets taken were by the pace trio. In fact, even in the earlier home series vs South Africa, the pacers took 25 wickets compared to the 22 by spinners. In fact, in this calendar year, Indian pacers have taken 95 wickets at an average of 15.16 with a strike rate of 31.06, meaning that the pacers have managed to pick wickets every five overs.

In the past, however, there was no single Indian fast bowler who had taken more than 20 wickets in a calendar year with an average of less than 20. This year, three bowlers have managed to do so. Mohammed Shami took 33 wickets with an average of 16.55, Ishant Sharma 25 at 15.56 and Umesh Yadav 23 at 13.65. Jasprit Bumrah, too, before being ruled out due to injury has taken 14 wickets at an average of 13.14.

A more amusing thing is that five of the eight Tests that India played in 2019 were in home conditions. It is an age-old truth in cricket that the pitches in India have always been more conducive to spin, with turning tracks and flat dusty pitches dominating the scene. Pacers seldom got help from such tracks. But the pacers seemed to have overruled this notion.

Statistics show that between 1933 and 2018, Indian quicks have always taken lesser wickets than spinners in all home series. But for the first time in 2019, the data seems to have taken a reversal. Out of the 77 wickets taken by India in home conditions in 2019, 40 have been taken by the pace battery.

This shift in the dynamic of Indian bowling can be attributed to many reasons. The main reason however, is Jasprit Bumrah’s arrival on the Test scene in early 2018 in the tour to South Africa. When he was selected for the squad, many people raised questions, considering the fact that he was always considered to be a white ball specialist and there were doubts about how he would acclimatise to Test matches. But, he hit the ground running ever since his debut. In 2018, he managed to pick 49 wickets from just 10 matches, thus making him the most successful Test bowler in his debut year. In Australia, where we are used to seeing Australian fast bowlers trouble the Indian batsmen, it was the opposite way around this time, with Bumrah leading the wicket tally with a whopping 21 wickets in the series.

What Bumrah’s arrival did, is bring a sense of healthy competition to the squad, as quoted by Ishant Sharma in a recent interview. Seeing a young Bumrah achieve success, the other senior pros — Shami and Ishant — too chipped in with their contribution, and the Indian pace trio  in 2018 managed to pick up 131 Test wickets, thus breaking a 38-year-old record of the most Test wickets by a pace battery in a single year set by the legendary West Indian trio of Holding, Garner and Marshall.

So, the arrival of Bumrah also raised the quality of the other pacers, so much so, that when Bumrah was ruled out with an injury, Umesh Yadav stepped up, and made India not worry about his absence at all.

The aggressive approach of Virat Kohli as captain has been a reason of the success of the pacers in recent times. Kohli likes to attack the batsmen with pace bowlers unlike captains of the past like MS Dhoni, who preferred to go to his spinners. Harsha Bhogle recently said that once in a chat, the Indian captain told him that he was looking for five quality pacers in his attack, so that he can strike fear in the minds of the opposition.

The improved fitness and the approach towards staying fit has also helped a lot in improving the quality of pace bowlers. One can see a marked difference in the physique of both Ishant and Shami, who were quite injury-prone early on in their careers. They themselves have admitted that Kohli’s emphasis on a fit team has led to a marked improvement in the standard of their bowling.

Another fact is that, unlike the pacers of Indian history, all of our pacers now are genuinely fast bowlers who bowl at express pace—more than 140 km/hr at a consistent rate. All the pacers have different styles of bowling. Bumrah with his deception, Shami with his late reverse swing and Ishant who can swing the ball both ways.

It is not just the four fast bowlers —Bumrah, Ishan, Shami and Umesh —that have made India so much more potent in their pace attack. Now, we have people like Navdeep Saini, Deepak Chahar and Barinder Sran and many more talented pacers waiting in the wings. Youngsters like Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi are too being trained so that they can take up the mantle in the years to come.

India, who were ridiculed for not being fast enough, have suddenly now turned the tide to become the best fast bowling nation in the world.