Bowling challenge for a champion bowler

Anil Kumble’s first task as coach will be to sharpen India’s bowling attack, particularly when playing abroad

Anil Kumble at a recent practice session with the Indian team in Bengaluru. Photo: PTI
Anil Kumble at a recent practice session with the Indian team in Bengaluru. Photo: PTI

His selection to the post of Indian coach broke Ravi Shastri’s heart, but it’s easy to understand why Anil Kumble won the day with the selection committee. It had been an open race until Kumble applied—that is the impact 619 Test and 337 One Day International wickets can have.

The stakes changed. As Kumble oversaw the preparatory camp in Bengaluru ahead of the West Indies’ tour starting 21 July, a certain pointer emerged. The support staff for this tour—comprising four Tests—is missing a bowling coach. Perhaps putting two and two together was never so easy.

“At this point in time, I thought I can get close to the bowlers for a start,” said Kumble, just before the camp began. “It is my first trip as coach with the team and I would like to observe how the team is shaping up.”

There is certainly a lot of curiosity and excitement. While Kumble has only been handed a one-year term, his association with the bowlers could become the focal point of a season in which India are set to play 17 Tests—against West Indies, Bangladesh, New Zealand, England and Australia. While the latter four will see India facing their opponents in home conditions, the overseas tour to the Caribbean will be a crucial initiation for Kumble’s relationship with the bowlers, and with good reason.

For while it can be pointed out that this Indian attack has earned victories in its last two Test series, away in Sri Lanka and at home against South Africa, the reality is that these came in familiar conditions. Over the course of India’s most recent overseas cycle, stretching from South Africa (2013-14) to Australia (2014-15), the team has slipped up time and again when the going got tough in unfamiliar climes.

During this period, India were on the verge of winning in Johannesburg, South Africa, and then in Wellington, New Zealand, but let those opportunities go by. Later, Ishant Sharma led the attack to a wonderful win at Lord’s in 2014, but couldn’t make a mark during the remainder of that English tour. It was during the Australian tour which followed that India came apart, with Steve Smith’s run of form driving India’s bowlers to despair. Whether it was the short-pitched bowling in Brisbane, or wayward lines in Melbourne, Australia, the Indian attack was unable to come up with certifiable performances.

Now, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami are on a comeback trail, but they need to do more than rediscover their form. The former needs to regain his ability to move the ball and become useful again with the new ball. And while the latter retains the ability to reverse swing, he needs to find consistency.

Shami hasn’t played a Test since January 2015, so fitness could also be an issue in a season spanning 17 matches. Then there is Umesh Yadav, who needs to find a balance between pace and control.

Kumble has hinted that he could add a fast bowling coach to the support staff after the Caribbean tour, but as far as the spinners are concerned, he himself ought to suffice. Ravindra Jadeja is vital to the spin attack, while Amit Mishra is still finding his place in the Test arena despite being hailed as the successor to Kumble himself when he retired in 2008.

Kumble says he can certainly play a part in the bowling strategy. “That’s something I am looking at, trying to get closer to the bowlers and understanding what their needs are. This is certainly an area where I can contribute a lot more,” he says.

His biggest challenge on this front is to bridge the performance gap at home and overseas, starting with the West Indies tour. At the top of his priority list must be Ravichandran Ashwin—both Ashwin and Kumble have been considered their teams’ best spinners.

The biggest criticism against Ashwin is that in overseas Tests, he often retreats into a shell. His overall average dropped from 25.39 (in the 32 Tests he has played so far) to 36.66 (in 13 Tests abroad). There is a further sharp fall—to 56.58 (in nine Tests in Australia, South Africa and England)—barring his performance in four tests in Sri Lanka in 2014.

The off-spinner has tried to explain how his role changes when playing away from home, in that he has to support the quicker bowlers. It was much the same with Kumble, except that India’s pace attack in those days was such that he was still the leader of the attack.

Kumble, however, has always been a problem solver. He used his experience from the 1990s, when he protected India’s unbeaten record at home, to become a prolific overseas bowler at the turn of the millennium by tuning his game to the demands of his team. Now, Kumble has to help Ashwin bridge this gap.

Ishant Sharma, India’s lead pacer, with the experience of 68 Tests, will be Kumble’s other pivotal individual project. He first shot into prominence under Kumble’s captaincy during the 2007-08 Australia tour. Since then, he has taken 201 wickets over nearly a decade of Test cricket, and has developed into someone who is aware of his abilities.

“You have to be honest with yourself, that’s the most important thing. I know that I didn’t do well in the shorter formats of the game, so I accepted it. But I am doing well in Test cricket, so I know what my strength is,” he told on Tuesday.

Yet, for all his experience, he has returned an average of just two wickets per innings, not a handsome haul by any stretch of the imagination, considering the team would like to see him step into Zaheer Khan’s shoes. Can Kumble help Sharma step up as he gets to the 100-Tests mark?

Kumble has only had a short three-week period to work with this set of players before the first Test begins in Antigua. But he is familiar with the place. Back in 2002, it was at the St John’s Antigua Recreation Ground that a bouncer from Mervyn Dillon struck him while he was batting. He came out later with his face all strapped up, sent down 14 consecutive overs and dismissed Brian Lara.

“It is not often that we get 500-plus on the board when playing overseas. Now I can go home knowing that I gave my best,” he had said before boarding the flight back home that evening.

Even though this Indian team will be playing at the new Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, they will be able to connect with the tale of their new coach’s steely grit 14 years ago. That should be motivation enough to kick-start a new chapter in Indian cricket.

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.

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