Michael Holding, other experts, opponents, aficionados, fans and anybody else who thinks India have been let down by the bowlers in the ongoing World Cup are being plain insensitive. Now, S. Sreesanth sometimes mistakes the cricket field for a dance floor, and Munaf Patel every once in a while forgets that no run is completed unless the bat is grounded in the crease, but this is not reason enough to pillory these hapless chaps.
By my reckoning, they’ve done a more than decent job so far. Bangladesh were bowled out under 300 just when it seemed they were good to overhaul 372 in the first game, and England were forced to a tie in Bangalore despite needing just 67 runs from 10 overs with eight wickets remaining. Would this have been possible if the bowlers were not doing their job well?
Lone ranger: Zaheer Khan celebrates a wicket. Reuters
I can sense my first two paras have created neither mirth nor conviction in readers, so let me state it as it is: India’s bowlers have done no worse than was expected on the flat pitches they’ve played on. They’ve been able to hold their own, and keep the side in the hunt for a win. In the circumstances, one victory and a tie are not bad results. If you have to nit-pick, turn your attention to the fielding. That’s the sore thumb.
Consider the problems faced by England, for instance, and the efforts of the Indian bowlers can be better appreciated. England’s better attack has got licked in both the games they’ve played so far. Embarrassed by the Dutch, they were sent to the cleaners by India and but for Andrew Strauss, would probably have lost by a mile instead of the game resulting in a tie.
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The struggles of James Anderson and Graeme Swann, England’s two best in the recent Ashes triumph, suggest it will not be easy for bowlers in this World Cup, and more so on Indian pitches which have looked more flush with runs than those in Sri Lanka. The Bangalore pitch, which everybody predicted would help slow bowlers, compelling even the rival captains to include an extra slow bowler, turned out to be a belter.
Performances against minnow teams can give a misleading skew. Kemar Roach’s 6 for 27 against Holland and Lasith Malinga’s 6 for 38 against Kenya, with a hat-trick apiece for instance, does not necessarily bespeak of the bowling prowess of their respective teams. The West Indies came a cropper against South Africa and Sri Lanka were humbled by Pakistan on a home pitch.
Only the South African and Australian bowling attacks have shown a penetrative edge, but they’ve had a game each against a non-regular side, and against teams which have been floundering in recent times (Australia vs New Zealand, South Africa vs West Indies). In this context, India have beaten the best minnow team, Bangladesh.
Given the expertise and experience that the Indian bowling attack has (two part-timers in Yuvraj Singh, Yusuf Pathan and a rookie in Piyush Chawla), I don’t see how much more should have been expected. Sreesanth’s one appearance seems to have mortified skipper M.S. Dhoni, and Ashish Nehra is taking forever to get fit. The onus therefore falls on Zaheer Khan, Patel and Harbhajan Singh to win games. Harbhajan still seems to be missing the élan which has made him a match-winner in the past, and Patel is realizing that bowling in South Africa was far more rewarding than at home. This leaves us with Khan, who has been erratic in spells but magnificent otherwise, as was evident from his final spell in Bangalore. He is now not just the lynchpin of the attack, but of the team itself. India can dispense with a batsman, but heaven forbid if Khan falls ill or is injured.
Indeed, fitness and fielding are the two big worries for India, not so much the bowling. The buzz around the Indian dressing room is that at least half a dozen players are suffering from niggles, strains and pains. The fielding has been mediocre and was arguably the biggest factor in India’s failure to win in Bangalore.
India’s strength lies in batting, and I reckon Dhoni and coach Gary Kirsten will be demanding a 40- to 50-run buffer from the top order to defend against major teams. This has happened in both games: Virender Sehwag’s blitzkrieg against Bangladesh and Sachin Tendulkar’s magnificent 120 against England have established a rhythm which promises runs aplenty, more so because all other batsmen appear to be in good nick too.
The real strengths of all teams will emerge once the tournament gets down to more serious business after the minnows have been eliminated, but a pattern of high-scoring games is emerging clearly enough. Benign pitches in the subcontinent are obviously contributing to this, but batting skills and bravado have also increased since the advent of Twenty20. How India can stave off the challenge from other teams will obviously depend on how they bat and bowl—but even more, how they field.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org