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Glorious days ahead for Indian pace bowling   

As one who witnessed at close range the farce that was the Indian opening bowling in the 1960s and early 1970s, the metamorphosis never fails to amaze him, says Partab Ramchand. Indian pace bowlers today are among the best in the world, being ranked No. 1 in the ICC rankings, and with the rich Indian spin tradition happily being maintained through the years, the Indian attack is now arguably the most balanced in the contemporary game, he points out, and tells us just why

It is widely acknowledged that the healthy scenario in the Indian pace bowling department can be traced back to the advent of Kapil Dev in the late 1970s. He provided the inspiration for others who followed and soon his immediate successors proved that Indians too could hurtle down the ball at speeds of over 140 kmph. Javagal Srinath took Indian pace bowling to new heights in the late 1990s and the early years of the New Millennium and was freely acknowledged as the fastest Indian bowler. Then came Zaheer Khan and briefly Irfan Pathan, but however gallantly they strove to keep the Indian flag flying in international cricket, they were termed as fast-medium. The landmark figure of sending down a ball at 150 kmph still eluded Indian bowlers.

Then came Ishant Sharma, and on the tour of Australia in 2007-08 he did send down a few deliveries just over the 150 kmph mark. Predictably, he was hailed as the best thing ever to happen to Indian cricket simply because no Indian had achieved the feat before. For once, there was an Indian bowler who was termed as ‘right arm fast’ and that was something to rejoice about.     

Now it was the turn of younger bowlers to get inspired and have the self-belief that an Indian could hurtle down the ball at over 150 kmph. But it was one thing to bowl at that speed and another to be successful as far as control in line and length and accuracy and stamina were concerned. There is no point in bowling at that speed and then spraying the ball around as someone like Shaun Tait has been guilty of doing. Not unexpectedly, the Aussie, despite being the subject of much hype surrounding his pace, faded away.

That was a problem that young Indian fast bowlers too faced.  Should they compromise on speed for other skills required to become a successful fast bowler? In the last decade or so, several Indians have bowled consistently at over 140 kmph and also exhibited the other skills required to be successful fast bowlers. Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj and Umesh Yadav have all played their part in India emerging as the No. 1 team in the ICC rankings across all formats.

Still, there is nothing quite like raw pace to excite the genuine cricket fan. The sight of a Jeff Thomson or a Shoaib Akthar hurtling them down at around 160 kmph can never be surpassed as sheer spectacle, and when this can be accompanied by the related skills of a searing yorker or a deadly bouncer it is the ultimate in cricket viewing. The 160 kmph mark is the exclusive privilege of very few but we in India longed for a bowler to send the ball down consistently at over 150 kmph.

About two years ago emerged such a bowler who had everyone sit up and take notice. For some time, Umran Malik was the most talked about cricketer in the land purely based on his ability to bowl consistently at well over 150 kmph. The lad from Jammu & Kashmir also exhibited the other skills required to be successful and sure enough he was fast tracked into the Indian team first for T-20 games and then in ODIs. But he has been in and out of the squad thanks to the plethora of pace bowlers and also for a perceptible lack of control over his bowling. He has had moderate success in the eight T-20 internationals and ten ODIs he has played, the last of which was last year. But at 24, he has age on his side and is very much in the scheme of things while representing Sunrisers Hyderabad in the ongoing IPL.

Kapil Dev, one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of cricket, was the one who provided
young bowlers the inspiration in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Photo: Sportstar.

Certainly, the last has not been heard of him internationally but, in the meantime, there is another young fast bowler who is currently the flavour of the season. Making his debut for Lucknow Super Giants in the current IPL, Mayank Yadav has suddenly emerged from nowhere as it seems, to be hogging the headlines for his sheer pace. In his first match, he took three for 27 and in his second three for 14, to end up bagging the player of the match awards – the first in the history of the IPL to win player of the match awards in his first two games. But what really caught the eye was his ability to send the ball down consistently at speeds of over 155 kmph. In the first match, he cranked up a speed of 155.8 and then went one better in the next game raising this to 156.7.  The beleaguered batsmen – among them Jonny Bairstow, Cameron Green and Glenn Maxwell – had no answer to his thunderbolts and were beaten for sheer pace as Mayank was always on the spot.   

Lucknow Super Giants brought the speedster onboard in 2022 but he did not play a single match that season and a torn hamstring kept him out of last year’s tournament. Now, Mayank who turns 22 in June, is being talked about as potential wildcard for India’s Test tour of Australia this coming winter. In the meantime, he has received this advice from Ishant: never compromise on speed to acquire other skills.

And as if the emergence of Umran Malik and Mayank Yadav is not encouraging enough, there is more to look forward to in the near future according to Varun Aaron. One of the fastest bowlers to represent India, Aaron hailing from Jharkhand played nine Tests and as many ODIs with modest success but at his peak it was his speed that was eye-catching. Having just retired from first class cricket, Aaron has joined the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai where he will team up with head coach Glenn McGrath to help unearth fast bowlers. Many prominent bowlers from India and abroad honed their skills at the Pace Foundation which initially had Dennis Lillee as its head coach when it was founded in 1987. In recent years however there have not been too many fast bowlers to emerge from the Pace Foundation but Aaron is convinced things are going to change for the better. “In the next few years you are going to see a lot of really good fast bowlers coming out from the Pace Foundation again,” says Aaron and that just has to be the best news for Indian cricket.   

(The writer is a veteran sports writer who spent his career working for The Indian Express and The Telegraph and Sportsworld.
He lives in Chennai.)