Saturday, 31 December 2011

Bring On the Quicks

by Vishwas Omjee

I grew up in Kolkata – Calcutta as it was then known – in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Hailing as I did, from a middle-class family, the brief for me had always been to excel in studies failing which I had to contend with parental wrath and grief. Even viewing television – and we had just bought our first television set a year ago – was taboo for me, for that would mean taking away time from my studies. June 1983 changed all that, and by the time Gavaskar’s men were busy making merry in Victoria a couple of years later, I was addicted.

I remember vividly following all the games of that tournament, the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in the first quarter of 1985. Still remember the Aussies being reduced to 85 for 7 at one stage. I remember Azhar steering India home against Pakistan with a typically delectable 93 with the help of Gavaskar (who for some reason I never understood chose to come down the order in that series), remember Vengsarkar & Kapil powering India past New Zealand in the semis, and then almost brushing past Pakistan in the final. And certainly not the least, Gavaskar’s speech at the end when he went to accept the trophy “First of all I would like to congratulate the Victorian Cricket Association on their 150th year…” – and the applause that followed that sentence.

A quarter of a century has gone by since those heady days. India is no longer around just to make up the numbers. And our winning the World Cup in April 2011 was widely celebrated yes, and rightly so, but it was not really a shock which the win in 1983 was – a pleasant shock, but a shock nonetheless. It is indeed a sea change today, and not just on the field. For good or not, Indian revenues dominate the economy of the cricketing world. Yes, a lot of things have changed – but not all.

Till date we have never had a pair of express quick bowlers hunting as a pair, much like say Lille & Thomson for Australia, or say Donald & Pollock for S. Africa. Closer home, across our borders, we find express bowlers a dime a dozen in Pakistan blessed as they are with phenomenal fast bowling talent, the likes of the mercurial Sarfraz Nawaz, their charismatic skipper Imran Khan, the two W’s Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram (the latter arguably the finest left arm quick in history) & later on they also have had the pairing of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami who though lacking the consistency of their predecessors, could be every bit as lethal on their day. And of course no mention of fast bowlers can ever be complete without the legends from the Caribbean – the genius of Andy Roberts, the languid beauty of a Michael Holding, the vicelike grip exerted by the intimidatory Joel Garner delivering his thunderbolts from close to 7 feet – or probably more, the craft and menace of a Malcolm Marshall, the parsimony of Curtley Ambrose and the accuracy and skill of Courtney Walsh. Looking at these, one might be forgiven for blaming the Cricket Gods for prejudice – why did all the fast bowling riches of the past 30 years have to be concentrated in only West Indies, Australia, S. Africa & Pakistan? Forget fast bowling pairs, we in India have not even had one genuine fast bowler we could get excited about.

One of the few sights that every genuine cricket lover around the world gets really really excited about is the sight of a genuinely quick bowler in full flow. The likes of Amar Singh & Mohammad Nissar were said to be really fast, but one suspects that that was more in relative terms than an absolute ones. Till Kapil Dev arrived that is. The story goes that a few days after India landed, some of the seniors from the two teams were having a quiet chat with each other. Suddenly one of the Pakistanis piped, “So, who’s going to open your bowling this time with Mohinder? Ghavri or Madan Lal?” With a twinkle in his eyes, Bedi is reported to have said “None of them actually. And it is Mohinder who will open the bowling with someone else.” Further queries just elicited a simple response “Kapil Dev”. A baffled opposition could really be forgiven for asking “Kapil who”. A few overs into the 1st Test, and their queries were answered, loudly when Sadiq Mohammad had to disrupt the age-old tradition of Pakistani opening batsmen facing Indian opening bowlers with just their caps on. And emphatically so, when he made Sadiq realize, that yes, the helmet was indeed required when he ducked into a Kapil bouncer.

Yes, Kapil Dev did have a huge impact on the way the game was played in India. Suddenly India had a fast bowler. Suddenly, every kid growing up in the by-lanes, in the maidans, wanted to be the next Kapil. Kids in the 70s wanted to be the next Prasanna or the next Bedi. In the 80s Kapil hogged that spot – everyone wanted to be the next Kapil. But if one took a good hard look, Kapil was never express pace – yes, he was far quicker than the Madan Lals and the Mohinders who would generally open the bowling but then they were mostly what is generally labelled as military medium. Or in some cases, slow medium. Kapil himself, for the major part of his career has been what one would say medium fast – yes he was a fascinating purveyor of swing, primarily the outswing variety, but at medium pace nonetheless.

Post Kapil, and in large measure owing to the impact he had on the imagination of the cricket loving and cricket playing population in India, there began to emerge a whole set of bowlers – most of whom would probably have walked into the Indian side in the pre-Kapil era; but unfortunately most of them did not get the opportunity to represent the country at the international stage for more than a few matches if at all. Amongst the few who did get an extended run were Roger Binny, Madan Lal, and Chetan Sharma, but whilst all of them did prove their utility on various occasions with bat as well, none of them were really quick.

In the 90s came a new crop of bowlers – most notable among them being Javagal Srinath. At his sharpest, he was genuinely quick, and there are claims that in the ’96-’97 series in S. Africa he even crossed 150 kmph regularly. The then gloveman Nayan Mongia is said to have remarked that Srinath in that series was at least as quick as Allan Donald himself, if not quicker. With all due respect to Srinath, while he was indeed quick in that series – and so have many others in bits and spurts, notably, Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Munaf Patel – he, as well as the others, all settled down and cut their pace to get better control over their line and length.

This is precisely why the last one year I have again begun to hope. These are still early days, but in Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav, we might after all, have a quick new ball pairing worth the name. Varun Aaron in particular, has developed a fair bit of reputation already after he clocked 153.4 kmph against Gujarat during the Vijay Hazare Trophy final earlier this year (2011), the fastest delivery by an Indian since speed guns started recording. He is known to consistently bowl in the early-mid-140’s and consequently a very exciting prospect. He is still finding his feet of course in international cricket.. which is one of the reasons why the BCCI needs to nurture him carefully. He has already in his brief career shown a propensity to get injured – he already has had three stress fractures in his back. Umesh Yadav the other exciting prospect is not always as sharp, but even he cranks the pace up to the mid-140s at times – and having a pair who can regularly open India’s bowling is a mouth-watering prospect, to say the least. It was really unfortunate that Aaron had to be withdrawn from the current Australian tour due to another back injury., but one is genuinely hopeful that his issues are merely temporary and that he does not go the way of an Ashish Nehra.

Fast Forward to November 2013, to the series against South Africa in South Africa. Aaron and Yadav are steaming in at the Springboks, and having Smith, Amla, De Villiers and co. on the back foot with four slips and two gullies, and a forward short leg. Ah, the stuff dreams are made of….

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