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India's Pace Revolution Starts Right at the Bottom

After India’s unassailable 2-1 lead against Australia ahead of the final Test match in Sydney earlier this month, Adam Gilchrist held Dennis Lillee responsible for India’s pace bowling revolution through his involvement with the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai.

Sidhanta Patnaik |January 21, 2019, 5:06 PM IST
India's Pace Revolution Starts Right at the Bottom

After India’s unassailable 2-1 lead against Australia ahead of the final Test match in Sydney earlier this month, Adam Gilchrist held Dennis Lillee responsible for India’s pace bowling revolution through his involvement with the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai.

“Three times a year for a total of 25 years, Dennis spent weeks at the foundation teaching the fundamentals of fast bowling – not only to the aspiring cricketers, but to their coaches as well,” wrote Gilchrist in his column for The Australian. “In fact coaching the coaches turned out to be as important as providing the actual tuition to the young bowlers.”

Indian cricket followers are not unaware of this. For a long time it was only Kapil Dev before Javagal Srinath and then Venkatesh Prasad emerged. Zaheer Khan ushered in a new chapter, and Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar, L Balaji, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Munaf Patel and S Sreesanth were a part of it. But they were a generation that was destined to lay the foundation than reap the rewards. As scientific awareness about pace bowling improved, intervention of technology and biomechanics increased, the explosion happened. Today India have at least six pacers who can play Test cricket and many more who have the credentials to hold a place in the white-ball team.

It has been more of an up to down transformation. Odisha’s 18-year-old seamer Rajesh Mohanty, for example, took 40 wickets in his maiden first-class season. More importantly, he looked finished enough for selectors to name him in the Board President’s XI for the upcoming two-day warm-up match against England Lions. Mohanty’s transition within a small window gives an idea of a wider net, something unimaginable even a few years back.

While Mohanty is a drop in the ocean, the richness was best displayed during the recently concluded Ranji Trophy quarterfinals where 91 of the 137 wickets to fall, which is more than 66 percent, belonged to the pacers.

Basil Thampi and Sandeep Warrier could go down as their state’s best new-ball pair if they continue to be as lethal as they have been this season. They bowled with a lot of venom on a helpful surface in Wayanad to help Kerala beat Gujarat and make it to their first-ever semifinal. Gujarat’s Roosh Kalaria took a hat-trick in the same game. Aniket Choudhary, Deepak Chahar and Tanvir-ul-Haq impressed strongly for Rajasthan in a losing cause against Karnataka in Bangalore.

The way Tanvir, the left-arm seamer who finished with 51 wickets, came from around the wicket in the first innings to induce Manish Pandey and Karun Nair to play false strokes and get out was the work of a craftsman. Such was Rajasthan’s pace bowling depth even after Pankaj Singh joined Pondicherry this season that they benched Nathu Singh for the knockout clash. Mahipal Lomror, the Rajasthan captain, stressed that “bowling in partnerships was the USP”, which fetched his team 15 five-wicket hauls, of which ten belonged to the pacers.

Vidarbha, of course, had Umesh Yadav, who finished the game against Uttarakhand with a swift five-wicket haul. Rajneesh Gurbani, the chief architect of their maiden title win last season, may not have been as effective, but he was not wayward. Over in Lucknow, Shivam Mavi showed the world how to dismiss Cheteshwar Pujara early. Eventually, Saurashtra recorded the highest-ever successful chase in the history of the competition to go past Uttar Pradesh, but pacers from both sides provided timely blows to set up the contest.

Jaydev Unadkat, the Saurashtra captain, took five wickets the first innings to keep UP below 400, and then Ankit Rajpoot, Yash Dayal and Mavi shared all the ten wickets in Saurashtra’s first innings to give UP a massive lead.

Aniket Choudhary. (AFP) Aniket Choudhary. (AFP)

Dharmendrasinh Jadeja’s left-arm spin was instrumental in Saurashtra making a comeback, but equally crucial was three timely blows from Chetan Sakariya, the 20-year-old left-arm seamer who has so far taken 25 wickets in six matches in his debut season.

The way he has rose to fill up gaps created by injuries to some of Saurashtra’s other pacers including Unadkat has been one of the season’s talking points.

“We got a couple of fast bowlers injured before the start of the season itself. So, we needed someone to turn up and do well. Even I got injured in between. Then Chetan took up that position and he really turned up like anything,” Unadkat said at the post-match press conference. “He is one bowler who can be good in all three formats. I am really looking forward to keep bowling with him, and we can prove to be a really great bowling force for Saurashtra.”

Such high praise was rare for a rookie Indian seamer in the past. Of course, Indian Premier League has played a major role in this shift. With franchises needing good Indian seamers to strike the right balance the onus fell on the players to develop accordingly. The knowledge transfer from foreign pacers like Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Lasith Malinga, Trent Boult, Dale Steyn among others has not gone wasted.

The other big factor has been the opening up of communication channel at various levels. The National Cricket Academy, India Under-19, India A and the senior national team are in sync with the state associations when it comes to workload management. Rahul Dravid has ensured that no more does anyone work independently. There is a clear streamlining of the effort that is being put in for the larger cause of Indian cricket.

“We have lots of correspondence and access to data. We look at plenty of aspects like injury-management, prevention of injury and mobilisation,” Paras Mhambrey, the India A and India Under-19 bowling coach, told The New Indian Express in an interaction recently. “Once we find the cream of the talent in domestic cricket, he comes into the ‘A’ team and we work with him. We don’t try and change the technical side of things, just look at improving him with some minor tweaks and emphasis on fitness programmes. A bowler who is graduating to the national team now has the experience of playing on all kinds of pitches, conditions and bowling with all sorts of balls – SG, Dukes, Kookaburra...What all of this is doing is, it is bridging the gap between domestic and international standards. They don’t take time to adjust.”

This is a seismic shift in a country that was used to seeing part-time pace bowlers open the attack in Test cricket to take the shine off the ball before the spinners took centrestage. And, the language is changing right at the bottom of the pyramid.

(Sidhanta Patnaik has reported on six ICC men's and women's tournaments. He is the co-author of The Fire Burns Blue - A history of women's cricket in India. @sidhpat)

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