Helmets didn’t clatter. Toes weren’t crushed. Rib-cages didn’t protrude with a broken bone. In the end, India’s golden age of fast bowling came to a fruition in the most Indian way – with dollops of intelligence, discipline, and skill. The pitch in Adelaide wasn’t conducive for such adrenalin-pumping acts, but the soul of this bowling unit doesn’t ooze menace; it’s subtler. Unsurprising, when India’s pace history is considered, this is an organic evolution of sorts.
For decades now, Indian fans have celebrated all the small pickings that came their way: Sadiq Mohammad signalling for a helmet after Kapil Dev fired a bouncer in 1978 series in Pakistan. That was a champagne moment. When Zaheer Khan bounced out Matthew Hayden in an ODI, we looked around the room to our family and friends and felt two inches taller. All juvenile reactions of course, but you can’t blame a generation who woke up at 5 am to hear on radio (or later see on television) vaseline-streaked white faces terrorise the fans if not the players themselves.
Not every Indian is getting carried away, though. At his home in Bangalore, one of the India’s fastest bowler ever, Javagal Srinath, didn’t leap up from his couch when Travis Head was dismissed by a snorter from Ishant Sharma in Adelaide. What made him happier, he says, was the stat: the number of catches that Rishabh Pant took behind the stumps. It meant the Indian seamers weren’t just fast, but also showed nous on how to conjure up high-quality spells in Test cricket. Periodically, Srinath did glance at the speed-gun on his television, but he wasn’t surprised by it. It was how it all came together, how the bowlers attacked in a group, and the “maturity” warmed his heart.
Srinath sums up three things that caught his eye: The pace in their third spells being as good as the first, the skill and discipline that reflected in the strangling lines and lengths, and the fiery-and-yet-intelligent spells that the three seamers whipped up through the game. “Bowling a bouncer wasn’t the main thing. The timing of it, the surprise in it, its accuracy is what got the wicket – and more importantly, what he bowled before that, and how he worked up to that ball – that gives me great pleasure,” Srinath says.
That, in essence is what makes this attack potent. If it wasn’t coming at 141 kmph (the Indian pace attack’s average speed in this Test), all the discipline in line and length would probably not have made the difference. The batsmen wouldn’t have been hurried, felt strangled. As Srinath says, the pace in the third spell matching up to all the initial enthusiasm with the new ball was quite something.
Srinath reckons the technology, and self-reflection it provides through various visual evidences, has played a huge part in Ishant’s evolution.
“You are watching everybody and yourself. You know where to put the ball. You know you just have to put your mind to it. With him, age and experience has helped. His county experience for example.”
He believes there is nothing quite like hunting in packs. He dips into his past to add weight to his argument. “In our days, we had one fast bowler in the team! I had to beg captains to get to bowl at times. They would look at three-spinners combination and have another in the team who could bowl spin. Those kind of pitches are now gone in India. Look at this attack: three bowlers attacking relentlessly. You can’t relax as a batsman. Even the best batsman can be made to look half-as-good if the pressure is relentless. You can’t just see someone off. All through the day, they keep coming hard at you. You would feel the pressure. Shami has been brilliant with his ability to win matches even in India. Bumrah has been great to watch: that isn’t a manufactured action; its natural and that helps. Then his attitude to bowling and his intelligence is a huge plus,” he offers.
It’s a pity that the highlights packages these days have been reduced to largely wickets and boundaries packages. Sometimes, a batsman being beaten is thrown in. Seen through that myopic prism, the Adelaide Test won’t reveal much apart from a great bouncer and batsmen chasing balls outside off-stump. It’s what happened that led to those moments that needs to be savoured. The relentless pinging of the ball in the trouble zone, the skill to dink the ball this way and that at pace is what led to the Australian implosion. For decades, be it Ajit Agarkar or a younger Ishant Sharma, the “boundary ball” seemed almost the main Indian contribution to fast-bowling lexicon. Adelaide shows (as did the England tour) that Indian pacers have not only come of age but are defining it.