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Cricket: How pace became the new weapon for India

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-06-2017 Satish Viswanathan

It was the morning of 28 March. Kapil Dev was sitting at the breakfast table of a Dharamsala hotel. On one side of the restaurant, the magnificent Dhauladhar mountain range could be seen in all its glory, with the sun just about sneaking through, when Dev turned his mind back to what had transpired the evening before at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium, something that had gladdened him no end.

That day turned to be the penultimate day of the hard-fought India-Australia four-Test series—India won the Test and, with it, the series 2-1.

“I have never seen an Indian attack bowl with so much pace, such aggression,” said Dev, to no one in particular. “It was one of the best displays of fast bowling that I have seen and to see it coming from the Indians made me feel real proud.”

Dev was referring to the fiery match-winning spells sent down by Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar on a third-day pitch that had, only in the morning, seen India’s seventh-wicket pair raise 96 runs between them, negotiating whatever Australia’s own quick bowlers, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, came up with on a responsive surface. Kumar actually had someone as accomplished as David Warner on the hop with his short stuff, setting the batsman up for the far quicker Yadav.

It was a rare sight in Indian cricket. No wonder Dev, India’s highest wicket-taker among fast bowlers, was impressed.

Sitting on the sidelines for that Test were Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami. The latter, had he not been injured during the earlier series against England, would have been the leader of the attack.

Shami was again left to warm the bench, this time in even cooler Birmingham, England, as young Jasprit Bumrah was added to the mix in the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy opening match against Pakistan on 4 June. A fourth quick bowler in all-rounder Hardik Pandya, also capable of bowling in speeds in excess of 140 kmph, was fitted in, completing the story.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowls against West Indies during the second ODI cricket match at Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on 25 June 2017. Photo: AP

In the Champions Trophy that ended on 18 June, after India lost to Pakistan in the final, Kumar was India’s most successful bowler. He took seven wickets from five matches, though it was way short of the highest wicket-taker, Pakistan’s Hasan Ali (13).

How did this transformation come about? How does the Indian team suddenly have three-four bowlers capable of hitting the 145 kmph mark, with some more waiting in the wings? How did Yadav, who for the major part of his initial days seemed directionless, become so consistent both with his line and length without losing any of his pace? How did Kumar, who started with speeds of 130-132 kmph, rev it up closer to 140, turning around the earlier Indian trend of fast bowlers slowing down soon after hitting the international scene?

The exception to that earlier trend was Javagal Srinath, who started as an out-and-out fast bowler and added craft and guile along the way, without ever compromising on his pace. He was perhaps India’s first genuine quick, and in a way the man who inspired a whole generation that followed. Having started his career just when Kapil Dev’s was winding down, Srinath, unlike today’s generation, didn’t have a threesome or foursome of fast bowlers in the sides he played in. He was a lone warrior for the major part of his career.

“It’s certainly a huge advantage and it’s something I missed out on. Fast bowling is about conserving energy and having a bunch like this allows you to do so. I did think I was over-bowled but it was the need of the time, and in a way I enjoyed it. I didn’t have an option really but I was okay with it,” says Srinath, now an ICC match referee.

Srinath attributes the change in fast-bowling fortunes to two main things. One, he believes that India playing so much cricket has helped fast bowlers.

“I keep hearing about too much cricket but my thinking is that the more you play (bowl), the better it is. The body would take the proper shape of a fast bowler, it would develop the right way,” says Srinath. “People can say the IPL (Indian Premier League) is bad but it adds to a fast bowler’s strengths. I can clearly see the confidence they draw from such cricket (IPL), where they have to bowl ball after ball with great accuracy.”

Two, he lists the support available to players inside and outside the dressing room. “The coming in of proper (well-qualified) physiotherapists and trainers has done wonders. It’s a crucial cog in the wheel, the right support staff. When the physio knows his job, the recovery is quicker and that really helps,” says Srinath.

He cites the example of Umesh Yadav to substantiate his point about fitness and the change the right support staff has brought about. “He (Yadav) has embraced Test cricket. You have to put in the hardest work when it comes to Tests and he’s put in those extra yards. It’s helping him play for India in all formats. Umesh’s ability to bowl these long spells at sustained speeds (in Tests) is paying off for him,” says the former Indian pacer.

Kumar, the other improved bowler in the Indian set-up, agrees with Srinath. In an interview to Wisden India about his increased pace, Kumar said: “I didn’t increase it intentionally. I wanted to, but I didn’t work specifically to increase it. Speed comes the more you get fit. Since Shankar Basu, the trainer of the Indian team, came into the set-up, he changed a few programmes in the gym. The things he added really helped me. He did a kind of power training…. It’s totally from head to toe. One exercise can exercise your whole body and in those you have to use power and speed. That’s the thing which added power to my muscles and gave me speed.”

Better diets have helped. “Players these days know what they are eating, how much to eat and what to eat when, and that’s a big plus,” says Srinath.

It is a big advantage for Indian cricket. This pack of fast bowlers—especially with Shami’s bouncers, Yadav’s reverse swing, Kumar’s swinging yorkers, Bumrah’s own yorkers and change of pace—is becoming increasingly more difficult to handle, putting the normally spin-dependent Indian side on a new and different high.

Satish Viswanathan is a cricket columnist who has also had a stint in cricket administration.

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