As one who has witnessed at close quarters the farce that was the Indian opening bowling in the sixties and early seventies, I marvel at the strength and variety of our pace attack these days. There is virtually an embarrassment of riches and some forty years ago, one would never have thought that the day would come when that phrase could be used to describe the Indian fast bowling scenario.
The advent of Kapil Dev was bound to create a healthy scenario in the pace bowling department. He was an inspiration to upcoming bowlers who learnt that one could take wickets by hurling them down at 120 to 140 kph as also by giving the ball a healthy tweak which was Indian cricket's traditional strength. Kapil Dev retired in 1994 but his legacy was a long line of first rate opening bowlers who proved to the cricketing world that Indian pace bowling was not to be taken lightly and was every bit as destructive and successful as the spin attack.
Kapil had several fairly successful partners and after his retirement the duo of Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad in the nineties was the finest pace attack since the legendary days of Mohd Nissar and Amar Singh. These days, of course, the Indian fast bowling line-up frequently constitutes a trio with just one spinner as a back up. Who would have thought of such a scenario during the days when the bowling was opened by the likes of Jaisimha, Durrani, Pataudi, Subramanyam, Kunderan, Wadekar and Gavaskar. In fact I have always felt how much more Pataudi could have achieved as Indian captain had he had just one Kapil Dev or Srinath in the ranks. But with an apology of a pace attack he had one hand perpetually tied behind his back.
What a metamorphosis the Indian pace attack has undergone over the years! We now have half a dozen deserving candidates fighting for three places in the eleven. And in home conditions most of the time there are just two places open for opening bowlers. Bowlers who were match winners just a couple of years ago are now forgotten men as newer and younger bowlers are fast making their mark. Ajit Agarkar has surely played his last match for India while Ashish Nehra and Laxmipathy Balaji are virtually forgotten men even as comparatively new kids like Rudra Pratap Singh and Ishant Sharma are enjoying the spotlight. Shantakumaran Sreesanth has been around for a couple of years now and Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel after successful comebacks are very much in the news. And to think that VRV Singh, Pankaj Singh and Praveen Kumar are waiting in the wings. There is nothing more heartening for the Indian cricket fan to see energetic young Indian pacemen
bowl with hostility and give as good as they get.
In a way, the Chennai-based MRF Pace Foundation can take credit for the much healthier scenario in the fast bowling department. When it was set up in 1987 the cynics far outnumbered the optimists. 'Fast bowlers are born and not made' was the general refrain and the disbelievers scoffed at the concept of a training programme that would develop pace bowlers particularly in India which had no pace bowling tradition at all. The cynics spoke about the intense heat and humidity and the unwillingness of Indian cricketers to put in grueling work in adverse conditions - an essential quality to become top class fast bowlers. But over the last two decades the Foundation with former Australian fast bowling great Dennis Lillee as the guiding force and former Indian speedster TA Sekhar as the chief coach has proved that a scientific and systematic long term project can produce results. Not only have they churned out future fast bowlers but whenever the Indian speedsters have
faced a problem – either an injury or a technical fault - they have gone back to the Foundation in a bid to rectify it. Needless to say they have emerged better bowlers as more than one cricketer has publicly stated.
Gone are the days when the Indian opening bowlers used to bowl just two or three overs with the new ball and give way to the spinners to take the wickets. I remember the days when Solkar and Pataudi completed the formalities even as Bishen Bedi was warming up at third man. And it was only the second over of the innings! Over the last 30 years dating back from the entry of Kapil Dev there has been much more respect for Indian pace bowling but I dare say that never has the scenario been so encouraging and fulfilling as it is right now.