Bowlers win Test matches; batsmen, at best, set them up or save them. India has not won an overseas Test since June 2011 and thereby hangs a tale. A corollary of the aforesaid maxim is that fast bowlers win Test matches overseas, of which India has had a dearth: no wonder it has generally struggled overseas.
On the face of it, India has been developing a pool of fast bowlers since Sourav Ganguly took over the captaincy, but on the ground only Zaheer Khan managed to play a substantial number of games and had a defining impact on matches, even series.
It was on the infamous tour to Australia in 2007 that we were formally introduced to Pankaj Singh, albeit on a piece of paper called the team sheet. The right-arm medium pacer got picked again only a month ago for the tour to England beginning on July 9. That brings to fore many unanswered questions: Who is Pankaj Singh? Why was he in limbo all these years? Pankaj Singh is a broad shouldered, tall, strapping lad, your quintessential fast bowler, a rare commodity in a country that has its fair share of scarcities. The answer to India’s problems was looming all this while in the background and groping in the ranks, having played for India under-19, India A cricket and then representing Rajasthan with great distinction since August 2003.
The 29-year-old is a veteran of 77 first class matches who has accounted for 300 scalps at an impressive average of 25. Toiling away on the docile tracks all over the country for almost 10 years, he was the catalyst of Rajasthan’s resurgence in domestic cricket, which was enough to warrant his selection into the Indian team. But the last time somebody as old as him represented India for the first time in a Test was Iqbal Siddiqui in 2001, which also happened to be the first and final appearance of the aforesaid. But that is unlikely to be Pankaj Singh’s fate, he’s like the film Shawshank Redemption — he is good.
As India begin their campaign against England, it remains unlikely that Pankaj will be a starter but it being a five-Test series spanning over seven weeks, the chances are his opportunity will come this time. How soon will depend on Dhoni’s stubbornness and his readiness to tinker with the bowling combination, though in the past he hasn’t shown much inclination to tweak things, no matter how desperate the situation might be. But finally Dhoni’s patience’s might have run out and that can only be a good thing considering that Ishant is a veteran of 50 odd test matches who has not learned much: In fact, it is more a case of playing the same match 50 odd times. It is hard to fathom how an average of 38 over the course of 55 test matches justifies continual selection but every time Ishant has been on the brink and the door was being slammed, he’s stuck a toe in at the last instant, produced a performance and held on to his spot.
So, it becomes a judgement call on the part of the captain: you have invested heavily in somebody and desperately want him to come good, so that your faith in him is vindicated. But the repository of your faith constantly blows hot and cold — his bowling may well be dependent on which side of the bed he wakes up, because watching him bowl you often get the feeling that even he doesn’t quite know where he’s landing it.
A comment from a former Indian player comes to mind: he had stated that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way Ishant releases the ball as his wrist is never behind it and he struggles to find consistency in his bowling. Of course, nobody paid much heed to the comment but, now, one can imagine the cricketer mumble ”I told you so” every time Ishant misdirects a ball, as has happened with great frequency on the tour matches thus far. But despite all these pitfalls, he is a sure starter in the England series. In Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Dhoni has somebody who’s got an air of predictability about him, which on the field usually translates into control. That makes him the prototype swing bowler, tailor made for English conditions, in the mould of Praveen Kumar, who was India’s shining light on what was an otherwise grim landscape in 2011. Praveen’s problem was that he’d often find the edge but due to his lack of pace the nudges would drop short of the slips; Bhuvaneshwar is a yard quicker, almost reminiscent of Terry Alderman. The Alderman parallel is bound to be drawn if anyone has watched him move the white ball. The thought of a brand new red Duke in his hand must send shivers down the spine, though replicating Alderman’s feats in England remains a far cry considering that the wickets are expected to be feather beds in comparison to what Alderman would have encountered in his time.
Bhuvaneshwar’s ability and tendency to gobble up left-handers with the new ball will hold India in good stead against Alastair Cook but the former will have his work cut out: he’d be expected to do the donkey work once the ball gets older, especially if nothing much is happening in terms of movement. The job at hand in such a situation would be to hold an end up tight while Dhoni explores the other old ball attacking options between over 40-80. The mantle of spearheading India’s young fast bowling brigade is upon the shoulders of 24-year-old Mohammed Shami, thin in experience and only 6 matches into Test cricket but mature well beyond that statistic. He came into the reckoning 10 months ago in the home series against a meek West Indies who were blown away by his deceptively quick late swingers.
He displayed his prowess with the old ball and reverse swing at home and then learnt the tricks of the trade in the shadow of Zaheer Khan on the tours to South Africa and New Zealand where he experienced great personal success and looked the most threatening bowler of the lot. The baton has presumably been passed on and he will be expected to assume the role of the leader of the pack. It is imperative that the core group of fast bowlers remains fit and delivers in unison, and the old cliché of hunting in pairs applies. Bowling partnerships are critical for building and sustaining pressure from both the end, and Dhoni’s biggest headache will be to systematically manage and divide the work load of the core group. You don’t want to be compromising in a match situation but at the same time Dhoni must utilise the limited resources at his disposal judiciously. India’s fortunes will largely depend upon keeping their best bowlers firing on all cylinders for the entire duration of the series.