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Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Fast Track


GAUTAM BHIMANI | Issue Dated: June 12, 2011, New Delhi
Tags : indian cricketers | Kapil Dev | Pakistani cricketer | Wasim Akram | Australian circkter | South Africa | Javagal Srinath | Munaf Patel | U-19 World Cup | New Zealand | Mumbai Indians | 2015 World Cup |

The day Osama bin Laden was found and shot down in a mansion in Abbottabad (incidentally home to a pretty competitive domestic T20 cricket team, the Abbottabad Rhinos, now called the Falcons), a friend of mine known for his irreverent, even cynical outlook to life, remarked "kya baat hai, Pakistan se jitney fast bowlers nikaltey hain, utnehi terrorists!”

Leave the good folk in Obama’s vast nation (who know a dash more about dealing with terror than the nuances of cricket) to deal with Osama and decide whether or not our neighbours harbor terrorists. But on the issue of the fast bowling assembly line in Pakistan, there is certainly no disputing the fact. From the time I have actively followed the game in the mid 1970s, Pakistan has managed to produce world-class speedsters starting with the mercurial Imran Khan, the spunky Sarfraz Nawaz and the wily and slender Sikandar Bakht, to the newer generation led by the two amazing W’s – Waqar and Wasim, and the likes of Mohd Sami, Mohd. Asif, Mohd.  Aamer, Sohail Tanvir or the silky smooth Umar Gul. But the same certainly cannot be said of the fast bowling resources across the border here in India. For at least two decades, Kapil Dev remained the sole torch bearer supported by a battery of what could be best classified as medium pacers.

So why the distinction between two nations with essentially similar conditions? Theories sprung up thick and fast. The diet is all wrong, they said. You can’t have vegetarian fast bowlers, lamented others. Young quickies in Pakistan eat beef yet others insisted. And oh, my cynical friend has managed to convince many that Pakistan has a secret underground fast bowling academy where kids from the age of seven are given the choice between an AK-47 or a cricket ball and are trained  accordingly.

The truth is that it is probably mere coincidence that more fast bowlers emerged from “there” rather than here! Javagal Srinath was one of the first to dispel the vegetarian theory. And suddenly in the last couple of years, India’s modern day workhorse Zaheer Khan (who for a while did play a Kapil-like role) has found plenty of support at the other end and the cupboard is not that bare anymore. 

The resurgence is probably best symbolised by someone like young 18-year-old Agra-born Deepak Lokandersingh Chahar from Rajasthan who actually hit the headlines in a domestic cricket game that was not the IPL. In a Ranji Trophy (yes, that historic but scantily followed inter-state tournament generally played on flat batting friendly pitches) fixture played at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur at the start of the 2010-11 season, Chahar, playing his first first-class game, demolished the vastly experienced Hyderabad batting line-up with figures of 8 for 10. Hyderabad, (a team ironically that also hold the highest score record in the Ranji Trophy of 944/6) was rolled over for a dismal 21!

But let us not ignore the IPL either. With opportunities available, many young fast bowlers now have a proper platform to display their wares, and with just a maximum of four overs they know there is little margin for error if they have to take the next step to national colours. A few names that have impressed include the sharp Varun Aaron from Jharkhand, Umesh Yadav, Amit Singh, Siddharth Trivedi, Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun. The likes of Ishant Sharma learn a lot by bowling in tandem with someone like Dale Steyn and keep reminding the national selectors that he is alive and kicking. Yet others who made a name initially,  thanks to the IPL, but have not quite fulfilled their potential are the likes of Pankaj Singh, Dhawal Kulkarni, Sudeep Tyagi and Shane Warne’s sensational discovery Kamran Khan.

Then there are those like Ajit Agarkar, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh and Lakshmipati Balaji who use the IPL to discover a second wind and in some cases use it as a springboard for national selection or re-selection. And for some, like young Prasanth Parameswaran (already nicknamed Parmesan cheese), who burst into the spotlight by dismissing Virender Sehwag on second ball on May 2, it will be a test of character as he will need to quickly get over the trauma of being hit for 37 in an over by Chris Gayle in his third game just six days after his man-of-the-match effort against Delhi. Even if we look outside the IPL, at the Under-19 World Cup for instance, we see that even the raw juniors have thrown up talent that needless to say the IPL has subsequently exploited.

The best example of this is Jaidev Unadkat, who picked up seven wickets in the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand in January 2010 at a stunning average of 15.42 and boasted of a miserly economy rate of 3.90. However, India’s highest wicket taker in that event, Saurabh Netravalkar, also a left-arm medium-fast bowler, has not been heard of since. Apparently, he was studying engineering simultaneously and may have headed in that direction!

With the advent of T20 cricket and the need for economy as well as attacking options, some have taken the sensible route and realised that fast bowling can also be about accuracy and not everyone is a Shaun Tait or a Lasith Malinga. The best example of this is Munaf Patel who started out with a reputation of being express but has settled down to being an asset for team India and the Mumbai Indians. 

But irrespective of what category an Indian fast bowler belongs to, the fact that I have been able to rattle off so many names means that India is actually churning out the quick bowlers. This is a never before seen phenomenon and the need of the hour with the team playing so much cricket, is to identify the best, nurture them, and rotate them in  such a way that none of them burn out. 

And so, come the 2015 World Cup on the bouncier pitches of Australia, the defending champs can go with a fearsome pace battery and beat the likes of Australia and South Africa at their own game. Plus, of course, have bragging rights over Pakistan in that department!  

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017