The fact that India could not defend a reasonably good score of 285 against a weak Zimbabwe team proves one thing that the followers of Indian cricket have long been aware of – the scarcity of match winning bowlers in the Indian set up. The ease with which Zimbabwe chased down the score was very uncomfortable to watch. Agreed, India was playing a second unit team and the three pace bowlers used in this match were all making their international debut, but for crying out loud, its Zimbabwe, a Zimbabwe that is shorn of all their major players due to Mugabe’s politics and are on the mend.
Zaheer Khan, Praveen Kumar and Ashish Nehra who would’ve been the first choice seamers have been rested and so was the first choice spinner, Harbhajan Singh, for this rather meaningless tri-series, also involving Sri Lanka. The recent Twenty20 world cup debacle, rightfully, exposed the shortcomings of the Indian batsmen against the bouncing ball (yet again) but an important aspect that was missed by all and sundry amongst all the finger pointing and brawl gate, was that the Indian bowling could not restrict the opposition in any of the matches (except against newbies Afghanistan). The pace bowlers looked toothless on the same pitch where the Jerome Taylors and Shaun Taits of the world were making the Indian batsman hop around like cat on a hot tin roof. Even the medium pace of Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy was making the Indians feel extremely uncomfortable, which shows how ineffective the Indian pace attack was. [The only bowler that looked reasonable - and he was a spinner - was Harbhajan Singh but even he did not look like taking wickets, although he restricted the batsmen almost always, except in the all crucial do-or-die game against Sri Lanka.]
The last 4 years, the following have played for India in the role of a (medium) fast bowler in one format of the game or the other: Irfan Pathan, Sreesanth, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar, Ashish Nehra, RP Singh, VRV Singh, Ranadeb Bose, Sudeep Tyagi, Joginder Sharma, Munaf Patel, Manpreet Gony, Abhimanyu Mithun, and last and the very least, the enigma (as to how he kept a spot in the team for so long) Ajit Agarkar. If you weren’t counting that murderer’s row, that’s 15. And yet, there were 3 bowlers who made their debut today (Ashok Dinda, Vinay Kumar and Umesh Yadav). Mercy!
The irony of this situation is that India is the numero uno in the “real” format of the game – Test Match Cricket, where a team needs to have the ability to take 20 wickets to succeed. The shorter formats could allow the team to wiggle out of a tight spot by “restricting” the opponents to a manageable total (but that strategy is backfiring as well as shown today and in the T20 WC). If you were to ask yourselves an honest question as to who would be your automatic pick as the leading pace bowler for the Indian team, the list goes one man deep, Zaheer Khan and that’s pretty much it (and if you wanna really stretch yourselves, then Praveen Kumar in the limited over format). How did we get to this?
Through a combination of injuries, player burn out, lack of fitness, players trying to contain themselves to prolong their career which invariably affected how they performed and eventually a loss of confidence, and in case of Sreesanth – a severe case of immaturity. Looking back on the memorable Test, ODI and T20 wins of the last 3years, India has not had a bowler consistently perform for the entire duration except for Zaheer (whenever injuries allowed him to, anyway). RP Singh was spectacular in England 2007, Sreesanth in South Africa and last year against Sri Lanka at home, Ishant Sharma in Australia 2008 while Munaf Patel has chipped in here and there. Praveen Kumar had his moments in CB Series final against Australia in 2008 but he does not have the pace to rush any decent batsman in the world, and once the ball loses its shine, he might as well be substituted by a bowling machine.
Ashish Nehra has made the arduous journey back in to the national team after his career seemed to get sidetracked by his attitude and ankles, but he looks like a shadow of himself, which is still better than Agarkar. Zaheer Khan is on the wrong side of 31 and does not have many years left in his career (at best 3), and its about time the young ones get their act together and step up to the plate. My hopes are still on Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma, as they both have the pace and skill to make even the better batsmen of the world, look very ordinary and out of depth. The fast bowling options beyond these three (and Praveen Kumar and Nehra in limited over formats) look threadbare.
It is possible that the way to go forward for Indian cricket would be to identify “specialist” bowlers similar to Australia who have Tait and Nannes, playing the T20 format exclusively. This could perhaps save the health of pace bowlers trying to play all formats, all the time and get exposed to stress fracture and hamstring injuries, and would ensure there is a larger pool of bowlers that have been exposed to international cricket. The Indian cricket board needs to have plans in place to help these bowlers take better care of their bodies, help them with proper rehab routines and ease them back in to international cricket. (I know, expecting the BCCI to do the right thing – just a pipe dream).
Its also important that when a new bowler hits the circuit, he is not run into ground by over-bowling. Ishant Sharma bowled consistently in the 140k range in his first year in international cricket. He played so much the next 2 years that now, on a good day, he hits the high 130’s. Same thing happened with Irfan Pathan. India is not exactly a hotbed of fast bowling, so whenever there are brave souls that choose this line of work and have the talent, they need to be handled with extreme care. It can only be good for India.