Sachin Tendulkar scoring his 50th Test century (followed by the 51st) may have been the statistical high point of the ongoing series between India and South Africa, but surely the most abiding memory will be of Jacques Kallis being caught off a Sreesanth snorter in Durban.
You do remember that delivery, of course. It pitched just short of a length and reared off the track like a surface-to-air missile, spitting venom and danger. Kallis could just about take his head out of the way, yet do no better than fend the ball to gully for a dolly catch.
The batsman, I might reiterate, is one of the modern greats who is also now in hot pursuit of Tendulkar’s record aggregate of runs and centuries. I might also add that Kallis’ dismissal triggered the collapse which saw India win the Durban Test.
But does anybody remember the last time an Indian fast bowler used the short ball to such lethal effect? The task is daunting because the history of Indian cricket is replete with tales about the wonderful exploits of spin bowlers.
Indeed, the only other occasion which comes readily to mind is Kapil Dev knocking Sadiq Mohammed on the head with a bouncer, compelling the bewildered Pakistan opener, who had believed the threat to him was only from Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, to ask hurriedly for a helmet.
This was way back in 1978 and one of the redeeming features of a series that India lost badly—shell-shocked, if I may add—by the pace and aggression of Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz. Dev, incidentally, was playing his maiden series, and such was the impact of the delivery which made Sadiq Mohammed see stars that he became an instant star.
Zaheer Khan has been India’s best seamer for a few years now
Traditionally, Indians have been at the receiving end of fast bowlers. Barring the last decade, India’s performances overseas would be woeful for two reasons: Unused to pitches with bounce and pace, the batsmen would struggle against opposing fast bowlers; and with no real fast bowlers in their ranks, would hardly trouble opposing batsmen.
Spin has been the fulcrum of Indian bowling attacks for the most part of eight decades since the country first began playing and the lineage of slow bowlers is rich and strong: Vinoo Mankad, Subhash Gupte, Ghulam Ahmad, Prasanna, Bedi, Chandrasekhar, S. Venkataraghavan, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh have been regarded as among the best spinners in their respective eras.
So great was the dependence on spin that often the team would use fast bowlers only to get the shine off the ball. In fact, pure batsmen such as Sunil Gavaskar, Budhi Kunderan and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi have also shared the new ball with an Abid Ali or a Rusi Surti for a few overs before the spinners were pressed into service.
Culture and climate were prime factors in this lopsided development. India’s hot weather did not encourage youngsters to put in the hard toil to bowl fast, but perhaps more importantly, the Indian psyche was too benign for such hardship. Across the border, for instance, Pakistan were churning out fast bowlers in an assembly line, notwithstanding a similar climate.
Ironically, it was through fast bowing that India had made an immediate impact in international cricket. In the inaugural Test at Lord’s in 1932, Mohammed Nissar sent back the famed opening pair of Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe for 11 runs; only a little earlier, the two had put on 555 runs in a county match.
Nissar earned plaudits from critics for his raw pace in that match, Amar Singh for his controlled swing and seam bowling. In support were the medium pacers C.K. Nayudu and Jahangir Khan, and in subsequent years, Lala Amarnath. India’s bowling was pace led for almost a decade before spinners began dominating with the arrival of Mankad.
Till the turn of the new millennium, India’s wins overseas were fewer than can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and essentially influenced by spinners. The memorable summer of 1971, when Ajit Wadekar’s team beat West Indies and England in succession, made the spin quartet universal legends.
The magnificent Kapil Dev caused a turnaround in outlook—both in Indian cricket and society. He was not only first choice in the team, but also a role model for youngsters. Fast bowling was no longer a chore, but a road to stardom and glory.
The overseas victory against England in 1986 was built around the bowling of Dev, Chetan Sharma and Madan Lal. By now it had become clear that while spinners would help virtually everything at home, unless India had fast bowlers, they could hardly ever win on tour.
As it happened, the “Kapil effect” inspired successive generations of young cricketers to become fast bowlers and produced a fresh crop like Manoj Prabhakar, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, etc., with better skills and more eager for success.
This was to slowly but surely change the fortunes of Indian cricket. While Kumble and Harbhajan Singh between them have picked up around 1,000 Test wickets, pace bowlers such as Srinath, Prasad and lately Zaheer Khan have played a crucial role in taking India to the top of the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test rankings.
It must be admitted, of course, that barring the highly skilled Zaheer Khan, the performances of Indian fast bowlers remain suspect. But as Ishant Sharma showed in Australia in 2008 and Sreesanth in this series, the quality exists; it needs nurturing and discipline to become consistently productive.
If that happens, India’s reign at the top might be longer than most sceptics expect. Perhaps Sreesanth’s sensational delivery to Kallis will be the trigger for this.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at email@example.com