By Partab Ramchand
Since the advent of Kapil Dev in the late 70s the Indian pace attack has had a healthy look. But never has it been more potent as it is now. There are any number of experienced fast bowlers around and an equal number of promising bowlers waiting in the queue to get into the Indian squad. One can’t have a more encouraging and fulfilling scenario than this.
The five pacemen touring England constitute the leading quintet right now. Which means there is no place for the likes of Ashish Nehra, Irfan Pathan and RP Singh who were certainties not too long ago. Abhimanyu Mithun probably the best of the younger prospects has to bide his time. Which raises the question – whatever happened to the likes of VRV Singh, Pankaj Singh, Jaidev Unadkat, Dhawal Kulkarni and Lakshmipathi Balaji? Well, some of them have fallen away while others it would appear are further back in the queue.
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 the 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.
As I said the entry 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 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 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 few years ago are now forgotten men as newer and younger bowlers are fast making their mark. More are obviously waiting in the wings and 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.
Irfan Pathan made an interesting observation a couple of years ago when he pointed out that Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma have raised the bar of fast bowling in the country thereby throwing a challenge to other contenders to lift their game to that level. As a result he hoped that at some point of time other pacemen would reach that higher level and eventually the team was bound to benefit.
Not too long ago it was the Pathan who was the spearhead of the attack good enough to equal John Briggs’ 116-year-old record by taking 21 wickets in a two-Test series in Zimbabwe. He was the pin-up boy of Indian cricket and his growing popularity was underlined by the number of ads and endorsements he appeared in. Just as he was shaping well as the all rounder that Indian cricket had looked for since the exit of Manoj Prabhakar in 1996 Greg Chappell came along and interfered with his career, promoting him as a pinch hitter and sending him higher up the order even to open the innings. This was quite unnecessary as Pathan was clearly happier down the order and was developing along the lines of Karsan Ghavri. The result of this needless experimentation was that Pathan’s bowling fell off and he lost his place in the side. This was a pity for Indian cricket clearly needed Pathan the bowler much more than Pathan the batsman.
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 already warming up at third man. And it was only the second over of the innings!