India won the third Cricket Test against South Africa by 63 runs at Johannesburg. Having lost two earlier Tests, India has avoided a white-wash by winning this Test. The victory at Johannesburg, therefore is significant.
What, however, is more significant is that not a ball was bowled by any Indian spinner. In fact, with a clear swing away from tradition, not even a single spinner was included in the team. It was the wicket at Johannesburg that induced this highly unusual decision. Besides, as the cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle said after the match, Virat Kohli, the skipper, has a liking for pace. And, pace it was right through and twenty South African wickets were shared by the five Indian pace men in the Test.
To be able to field five pacers all at one time in the same test is something which is remarkable for Indian cricket. It has most of the time been handicapped for want of raw pace. What we mostly have been nurturing was medium pacers barring the interlude provided by Kapil Dev in the 1980s. Kapil was a genuine pacer and became available to the Indian team after a very long gap.
The gap commenced from the 1930s when Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh were lost to Indian cricket. Thoroughbred pacers, this duo could make life miserable for even the English cricketers in their home grounds. After the eclipse of that duo what we had was a long line of medium pacers. The handsome and debonair Fazal Mahmood, who too could generate genuine pace, migrated to Pakistan leaving the pace department to Lala Amarnath, Dattu Phadkar and CR Rangachari – all, at best, medium pacers.
The intervening three or four decades were infertile in so far as appearance of a genuine pacer was concerned. None, perhaps, knows the reasons. Maybe, most of the players did not have the physique and strength to sustain long spells of fast bowling in tests, the only format that cricket was played in those days. Perhaps, the over-dependence on spinners, too, prevented from pitches being made that were conducive to pace bowling. No wonder, during this period India produced some distinguished, world-class spinners for whom the Indian pitches used to be tailor-made. While touring teams made Indian teams miserable with their pace attack, their batsmen were troubled no end by the guile of Indian spin bowlers. They would use everything - flight, turn, bounce, drift and dip – to confound the batsmen.
With the appearance of Kapil Dev in the late 1970s India saw for the first time in many decades a genuine ‘quicky’ who could deliver fast balls and also take wickets. His out-swingers were lethal and got him many batsmen of repute. What he used to miss was genuine pace support. Most of his associates in the fast bowling department of the team were medium pacers, barring, perhaps, Chetan Sharma who unfortunately did not last for long. Others who were playing along with him, like Mohinder Amarnath, Roger Binny, Manoj Prabhakar, Madan Lal or Ajit Agarkar, were all medium pacers. To that extent the Indian pace attack has always been blunted – regardless of the histrionics with the ball by Kapil Dev. Only Javagal Srinath did fill for a while the void that was becoming far too disconcerting.
Srinath was one of the products of MRF Pace Foundation where he was guided by none other than Dennis Lilly. Late in the 1980s a rich cricket buff thought of doing something for the country’s deficiency in pace bowling. He put his company’s money creating facilities for nursing potential Indian pace men towards making them world-class pacers with the help of outstanding international pace men. His MRF Foundation got Dennis Lilly to do the honours of guiding and coaching young Indians who had the potential to come good in the tough and demanding five-day tests.
Apart from Srinath the Foundation produced several winners like Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Bhuwaneshwar Kumar, etc. With the creation of an environment for fast bowling and improvement of pitches that support quick bowlers large numbers of youngsters have taken to fast bowling. Off and on one hears some names that have done well in knocking off established batsmen with sheer pace. A number of young men like Jaydev Unnadkat, Shardul Thakur, Basil Thampi, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, etc are waiting in the wings for opportunities to perform. Until they get into action against foreign teams they would need to be nursed carefully to obviate the possibilities of frequent injuries that fast bowlers generally are prone to.
The significance of pacers coming good at Johannesburg should not, therefore, be lost on the cricket-loving public in India. Among the pacers who played in Johannesburg there were four who were in the team to form the nucleus of the pace attack. They were all hurling the ball constantly at 140 kmph. The fifth one, Hardik Pandya, who is basically considered an all-rounder, does twirl his arms as a change bowler who too bowls in the range of 140 to 145 kmph. And yet, curiously it was two of the genuine pacers who, coming good at wielding the bat, put the Indian total in the second innings well beyond the capabilities of the Proteas.
If the quartet (Bhuwaneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Jaspreet Bumrah, Mohammed Shami) continue to perform in the way they are doing, sharing all the twenty wickets of the opposition in a match, they would seem to be putting the likes Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravinder Jadeja, Kuldip Yaday and such other spinners of the red cherry out of business. Remember, while Hardik Pandya did not get many overs, another speed merchant, Umesh Yadav, the fastest of them all, was not even played in any of the test matches in the series that just ended.
So, if the knowledgeable cricket commentators call it the Golden Age of Indian Fast Bowling they wouldn’t be far off the mark. We can only join them and wish may the tribe of Indian fast bowlers increase to make the country an massive threat for other cricketing nations. Given that and the kind of batting line-up that it has, India could remain numero uno in test cricket for a long long time.