Pace attack has the power to propel this India team to greatness
India’s head coach Ravi Shastri can seem to carry himself like a very expensive present the world ought to be glad even to catch a glimpse of; self-doubt is not really his style. Yet when he declared India’s pace attack the finest in their history, there was no sense of hyperbole.
In each five-year period in Test history – taking the first five years in each decade and then the last five – have collectively averaged at least 32.03, which was their figure from 1985-90. But since the start of 2015, Indian pace bowlers average just 28.62 for each wicket.
In 86 years of Test cricket until 2018, India’s seamers had only twice taken all 20 wickets in a match. In Johannesburg in January, a five-man pace attack bowled India to a famous win on a spicy pitch. At Trent Bridge last week – shorn of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, man of the match in Johannesburg and the seamer whose style is most obviously suited to England – India’s pace bowlers once again bowled underpinned a magnificent win. They would have shared all 20 wickets once again too, only Ravichandran Ashwin swooped in to claim the very final wicket. But the fact remained: India’s seamers had outbowled England’s in English conditions – and nor was it any great surprise. Bowling England out for 245 on the first day of the Ageas Bowl, notwithstanding the lower order rally, was another mark of India’s pace bowling excellence in these shores.
A decade ago, India’s support for their main quicks generally comprised Sourav Ganguly’s very gentle swing; the sort that is ubiquitous in club games up and down England every weekend. Now they have Hardik Pandya: abrasive, quick and fresh from eviscerating England at Trent Bridge. If Alastair Cook’s dismissal – an aberrant cut at a wide ball when England were languishing on 36-3 – was the most inexplicable of the day, it felt like a desperate search for a release.
With this Indian pace attack there seldom is one. It stands as an emblem of how Indian cricket, as the country and national sport alike have opened up to the world, has learned from the best of other nations. Young fast bowlers who emerge can benefit from sports science, and a fundamental understanding of fast bowling, that has been transformed from a generation ago.
With its scouting networks and incentives to win, the IPL has also made it easier for pace bowlers to rise if they are good enough. “Before, there was a lot of regionalism in picking players,” says TA Sekhar, a former Indian fast bowler who was later chief coach of the MRF Pace Foundation. “Now it’s more transparent. If selectors see a bowler who’s bowling 140 [kilometres per hour] plus he’s picked for the state, then for the A team and the IPL and then the national team.”
For embryonic fast bowling talent, the IPL also provides an unrivalled development opportunity. That much is evident watching Bumrah; he has honed his brilliant yorker through playing alongside Lasith Malinga for Mumbai Indians. While Malinga has honed Bumrah’s white-ball skills, he has learned the discipline needed to be a Test bowler through working extensively with Glenn McGrath at the MRF Pace Foundation.
Pace bowling has historically been the roadblock to India’s Test teams achieving greatness. Now, the continued growth in pace bowling, augmenting the traditional strengths of batting and spin bowling, informs India’s belief that they can assemble a team to win in all climes.