It is not often in Indian cricket that the most senior member of the pace attack stays on the bench for almost an entire Test series—but that was the case with Ishant Sharma, before he was called up for the final cricket Test match against England earlier this month.
Such has been the competition (within the Indian team) that the opportunity came to the 73-Test veteran only after spearhead Mohammed Shami sustained a hamstring injury in the third Test. His replacement, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, picked up just one wicket in the next game in Mumbai that the home side won by an innings, taking an unassailable 3-0 lead in the five-Test series.
Sharma, 28, immediately made an impact as he took 2-42 off 21 overs in the first innings to complement the workhorse-like effort of Umesh Yadav (2-73) on a placid Chepauk pitch in Chennai in a high-scoring match.
India have produced world-class fast-medium bowlers over the years, from Kapil Dev (1978-94) down to Javagal Srinath (1991-2002) and Zaheer Khan (2000-14), but seldom has the side boasted of a pace pack of the quality and varied skills that this one has.
Shami and Yadav bowl consistently at 140-plus kmph. Sharma, who has taken more wickets than the other three combined, with 212 scalps, bowls in the higher 130s, with the ability to derive disconcerting bounce. Kumar belongs to the swing-and-seam school. Varun Aaron, who is waiting in the wings, cranks it up to 140-plus.
Together, they give Test skipper Virat Kohli the option of picking a pace attack according to conditions, be it three pacers overseas and two at home, or choosing horses for courses—for instance, when Kumar is top choice for conditions that aid swing.
While the spinners have carried the day in batting-strong India’s dream run under Kohli in predominantly favourable home conditions, the pace pack has become both an integral unit as well as an attacking option to provide breakthroughs.
Top-ranked India have now won five consecutive Test series, beginning with the 2-1 victory in Sri Lanka in August-September last year—their first in 22 years in the island nation—and have remained unbeaten in their last 18 Tests.
Through this run, the pacers responded to the demands of the captain, remaining disciplined in conditions that didn’t complement their skills, and showing they had come of age as a strike unit.
“I’m only waiting to play on pitches that assist them a little bit and it’ll be nice to see what they can do there,” Kohli said, referring to his pacers, after winning the third Test against England in Mohali, easily one of the better pitches in the series.
In that Test, Shami and Yadav shared five wickets to help restrict the visitors to 283 after they had opted to bat first. In the second innings, Shami came with up a double strike in one over with the second new ball—two perfect short-pitched deliveries to dismiss Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid—just when the England lower order was beginning to dominate.
“On these kind of pitches, to not lose heart and keep coming in, running in and bouncing guys, speaks a lot about their character. They come in, chip in and they let the others do their job as well,” the skipper added.
The Indian pacers clearly out-bowled and out-paced their counterparts in this high-profile series. But it would be a mistake to assess their contribution to the side’s victory solely on the number of wickets, given that the conditions were not conducive to their trade.
On his return for the West Indies tour of four Tests in July, after a 15-month break following knee surgery, Shami finished with 11 wickets in the Caribbean, second only to spinner Ravichandran Ashwin’s series-leading 17.
Against England, Uttar Pradesh-born Shami took 10 wickets in the three Tests he played, sending down 103 overs, as India’s four pacers accounted for one-third of England’s wickets in another spin-dominated home series. Shami was the most successful fast bowler of the series, while Yadav notched up eight wickets.
“Four-five quality fast-medium bowling options give the side an edge and are a confidence-boost to the captain,” former Test skipper and chief selector Krishnamachari Srikkanth says.
India will conclude a packed home Test season with a one-off Test against Bangladesh in February, followed by four against Australia. They are scheduled to tour South Africa, England and Australia in 2018 in what is being billed as the true test for the world No.1 side.
India are yet to win a Test series in both Australia and South Africa and lost in England on their previous two Test visits.
“What makes the Indian pace attack dangerous is that they are able to move the ball at high speeds,” former India bowling coach Bharat Arun says. “If they keep improving like they have these past two years, I am sure they will be a force to reckon with anywhere.”
Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp