Few doubt the current Indian pace bowling attack’s ability to shake the best of batting line-ups. The last time they toured Australia, in 2018-19, the trio comprising Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma took 48 wickets at an average of 21.6. While Cheteshwar Pujara’s batting provided the base, it was India’s pace bowling that sealed the series 2-1 in India’s favour, bowling out Australia seven times out of a possible eight in the series.
In the calendar year 2018, they took 136 wickets together, considered a record for a trio, trumping the haul of Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner (130 wickets in 1984). In fact, 45 of those 136 wickets came in the first three Tests in Australia in 2018.
However, there is one aspect where the present Indian bowling attack lack — the absence of a left-arm pace bowler.
In the first decade of this century, some of India’s best moments with the ball in Australia came through left-arm pace bowlers. Whether it was Zaheer Khan’s five-wicket haul at Brisbane that set the tone quite like Sourav Ganguly’s century there in 2003-04, or the twin strikes of Irfan Pathan at Sydney as he replaced an injured Zaheer later in that series or RP Singh running through Australia at Perth in 2007-08 after Pathan had scalped the openers. Ashish Nehra too took key wickets in the Adelaide Test of 2003-04 where Ajit Agarkar ran riot to help India win.
But as the second decade wore on, left-arm pacers kept disappearing with young options like Jaydev Unadkat, Khaleel Ahmed, Barinder Sran, Sreenath Aravind and domestic stars like Aniket Choudhary not stepping up to the plate. The current India squad has all right-arm pace bowlers and that sets them back in comparison to Australia, especially as Steven Smith and David Warner return to the Test squad after missing the 2018-19 series and the world No.3 Test batsman Marnus Labuschagne looks good.
“There is no doubt that the two teams are evenly matched when it comes to quality of pace bowling. India have a top-quality, world-class bowling line-up. But I think Australia will have a slight advantage as they are playing at home and they have a left-arm bowler in Mitchell Starc. A left-arm pace bowler provides variety, also the angle across the right-handed batsman. Though I think the advantage could only be slight, but there will be advantage for sure,” Irfan Pathan, who took part in the 2003-04 and 2007-08 Test series in Australia, told IANS.
When it comes to numbers, both have done well in recent years.
Since January 1, 2018, Ishant has taken 71 wickets in 18 Tests, Shami 85 in 22 Tests and Bumrah 68 wickets in 14 Test matches. For Australia, Josh Hazlewood has picked 59 wickets in 16 matches, Pat Cummins 107 wickets in 21 matches while Mitchell Starc has taken 77 wickets in 18 Tests.
Starc’s show in the last series against India, in 2018-19, was below par as he collected just 13 wickets across four Tests at an average of 34.53.
But since that series, he has picked 45 wickets in eight Tests at an average of 18.42. Seven of those Tests though have been at home, against weaker batting sides like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and also New Zealand.
Importantly, against New Zealand, the best batting side among the above three, he picked just six wickets in two Tests at Melbourne and Sydney where India are due to play. His biggest match-haul against the Kiwis came at Perth where there is no Test for India this time. Starc has had success also at Brisbane where Virat Kohli-led India play the last Test.
India would only hope he doesn’t bring the angle and the bounce that got rid of Kane Williamson at Perth last summer into play this time. Williamson was forced to edge a delivery that moved away a bit and went to second slip. But will Starc be able to extract that bounce, movement at less helpful Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney remains to be seen.