Kolkata: Spin did almost all the damage when South Africa toured India for four Tests in 2015-16. A.B. de Villiers and Hashim Amla were very much part of that squad, yet South Africa lost.
In the just-ended series, India’s pacemen had as much, if not more, of an impact, even though the spinners returned marginally more wickets — 32 to 26.
Not that the figures alone give the complete picture all the time.
In fact, India’s fast bowlers’ line-up struck gold despite no Jasprit Bumrah, who enjoys an exalted status, and no Bhuvneshwar Kumar, both of whom are recovering from injuries. Add Hardik Pandya (recuperating from surgery) too, as he does pick up the odd wicket.
As relevant is that Mohammed Shami (13), Umesh Yadav (11, in two Tests) and senior pro Ishant Sharma (2) actually had a far richer haul of wickets than the Vernon Philanders and Kagiso Rabadas. They managed 10, a far cry from the tormenting days when Allan Donald, Fanie de Villiers, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn made life challenging even for the most accomplished of India’s batsmen.
Graeme Smith, a former captain of South Africa and a modern-day great, paid the India pacers a handsome compliment: “The questions Shami and Umesh asked were of a different level. Their intensity was at a different high. We weren’t good enough with the old ball.”
The reality is that South Africa were not good enough early on as well, with negligible consistency.
Yadav (who made a comeback after five Tests) and Shami attacked the stumps and it’s not often that the short-pitched deliveries have been bowled with as much purpose as over the last few weeks.
Not that the pitches were a decisive factor in South Africa getting thrashed in each of the three Tests, finishing with “mental scars”, as captain Faf du Plessis readily conceded.
“No Bumrah, who is special, and no Bhuvneshwar either, yet India’s fast bowlers were on top. Naturally creditable, but I believe the unit can still do better…,” Kapil Dev, World Cup-winning captain and a legend, told ThePrint.
“I must say, one spell from Umesh left me asking for more. Also made me wonder why he’s not a regular…
“The biggest change, in my view, is in the mindset. Today, whether it’s at home or away, there’s a belief that the pacemen will deliver…”
Dev continued: “In the early years of my career (1978-79 debut), for example, the mindset was different. It was only later that captains started believing the ball could be thrown to me at any time. That change came about when Sunil Gavaskar was the captain…
“Conditions in Pakistan are no different from India, but the mindset there has always been to look to the fast bowlers to get the job done. That belief and the physique of bowlers have been factors across the border.”
Indeed, to captain Virat Kohli goes considerable credit for having the faith in, and giving confidence, to the Shamis. Matters hugely.
Dev added: “You have to appreciate that the pacemen can be very effective even on pitches which are slow and the bounce low. Of course, the correct length has to be struck…
“A study of the lengths bowled by Shami will show that he has become a different bowler after beginning to pitch it further. He’s so much better placed to hit the wickets with consistency…
“Going forward, Shami should aim to emulate Sir Richard Hadlee’s line and length.”
Praise from Nehra too
Former India fast bowler Ashish Nehra too spoke to ThePrint, praising the present generation.
“Of course, this lot has done very well, but it shouldn’t be that you forget those before them who were as effective…
“The significant difference now is that there are five-six good bowlers, so if one or two are unfit, there is talent on the bench to come into the XI…
“For me, Bumrah is the X-Factor, but not far behind in the past 20-21 months has been Shami. Once his fitness issues got resolved, he has been brilliant,” Nehra pointed out.
The Shami-specific point by Nehra is well made. Mohandas Menon’s statistics show he has taken 71 wickets in 18 Tests from the time Bumrah made his debut, in January 2018. The latter has 62 in 12.
Asked about Yadav, Nehra said: “Umesh has been a finished product for some time. He didn’t play in the first Test (Visakhapatnam), but made such a mark in the final two. The more experienced Ishant was available for the last Test (Ranchi), but Umesh kept his place, not Ishant.”
Over now to Kohli and his thoughts after India’s first-ever 3-0 rout of the once-feared South Africa: “The guys were relentless. The focus was on spin (chiefly Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja), but the pacers did the damage…
“They run in to take wickets, they have that want. They (quickly) want the ball back in their hands.”
“Team culture” is an aspect Kohli keeps emphasising. One of its features is the willingness to “learn from mistakes and improve”. India’s fast bowlers hardly put a foot wrong, though.
The challenge before the selectors and the team management is to balance the pacers’ workload. Related are fitness and intensity.
Not taking any credit away from India’s dominating bowlers and prolific batsmen, but the South Africa of 2019 wouldn’t be the yardstick to judge a team aspiring for the same greatness as Australia under Steve Waugh/Ricky Ponting or the West Indies under Clive Lloyd/Sir Viv Richards.
Today, England and a full-strength Australia (with Steve Smith and David Warner in the Baggy Green) are the teams to overwhelm.
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