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By Partab Ramchand
I must admit that I wasn’t particularly impressed with Praveen Kumar when I first saw him don the India cap against Pakistan at Jaipur some three years ago. Here is one more of those Indian new ball bowlers I thought who would go the way of the innumerable one Test wonders, another who will appear and simply disappear from the scene without making any impact.
Seeing him now as a successful spearhead of the Indian pace attack in ODIs I am happy to have been proved wrong in my initial assessment. The progress he has made is simply amazing. Even with the plethora of pace and swing bowling talent in the country Praveen has surged ahead and bids fair to be an important cog in the wheel during India’s campaign in the World Cup to be held in the sub continent early next year.
I well remember how he was thrashed in his first ODI going for 50 runs in ten overs. But he seemed to relish the faster and bouncier tracks `Down Under’ and was one of the unexpected heroes of India’s unexpected triumph in the CB series in Australia in 2007-08. He sealed the second final in India’s favour by dismissing Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting in his first and second overs In his fifth over he removed Michael Clark and Australia at 32 for three chasing a target of 259 were down and virtually out. For good measure he bowled Brett Lee and finished with figures of four for 46 to take the man of the match award. The significance of that first spell is driven home after a glance at the scorebook which shows that India won by just nine runs.
Actually that wasn’t Praveen’s first four-wicket haul or his first man of the match award. A week before he had taken for four 31 to shape a seven-wicket win over Sri Lanka, his victims including Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Chamara Silva. All three fell in the space of 15 deliveries. And he proceeded to make it three four-wicket hauls in four matches in his next game – against Pakistan at Dhaka. This was perhaps the most dramatic of his spells for he started the slide dismissing Salman Butt and Younis Khan with successive deliveries in his second over, trapped Mohammed Yousuf leg before in his next over and finally removed Kamran Akmal in his seventh over. Pakistan chasing a formidable target of 331 had already lost the match and went down by 140 runs as Praveen finished with four for 53.
With this kind of dream start Praveen just had to be a permanent feature of the new ball attack. But then as quickly as he had tasted success he had to endure failure. There was a spell of four matches in mid-2008 during the Kitply Cup and the Asia Cup which followed one another in Pakistan that he went wicketless despite sending down almost 34 overs. This blank period did not last very long however for he was soon among the wickets and in 30 matches since then he has had as many as five three-wicket hauls. Dambulla is clearly his favourite ground for four of those have been notched up at the Sri Lankan venue besides one in the Champions Trophy encounter against West Indies at Johannesburg last year.
But it is bowling in the just concluded tri series in Sri Lanka that has earned for Praveen a new respect. He has turned what was perceived to be a weakness – his lack of pace – into a big advantage. It is this aspect that has deceived the batsman as much as his ability to swing the ball prodigiously. His strong shoulders and supple wrist combine to send down deliveries that move away and suck batsmen into making injudicious shots. Of course his method of bowling means that he could also be wayward and this possibly explains his career economy rate of just over five. But he is also a combative cricketer who hits back hard. In the recent match against New Zealand for example he sent down two successive short pitched balls that were promptly smashed to the boundary by Ross Taylor. Undaunted Praveen sent down a delivery that swung disconcertingly away from New Zealand’s captain and best batsman. He had to play it and the resultant edge was snaffled by Dhoni. It was in this match that Praveen again displayed his ability to pick up wickets in a bunch. Guptill was leg before in his first over for a first ball duck, Taylor fell in his third over and he practically settled the match in India’s favour by bowling Styris in his fifth over with a ball that the experienced Kiwi knew nothing about. Not surprisingly Praveen finished as the leading wicket taker in the tournament.
Overall Praveen’s figures may appear to be modest – 56 wickets from 45 ODIs at an average of 32. But the upward swing in his fortunes is clearly visible and there is already talk of elevating him into the Test team. One is sure that if this comes about, the Meerut-born Kumar, who turns 24 in a month’s time, will be a success in the longer version of the game too.