Since Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s debut in 2004, 52 players have made their debuts for India in One Day Internationals (ODIs). A number of no great significance in itself, unless you break it up into specializations: 25 of those 52 have been fast bowlers. The break-up is similar in other formats: 23 out of 56 debutants in Twenty20 (T20) since 2006 have been pacers, so have 15 of 33 in Tests since 2005.

In a nutshell, close to 50% of debutants for Team India in the Dhoni era have been fast bowlers. Evidently then, the surest way to earn an India cap is to be a pacer—across formats. After all, here is a slot that always has a vacancy.

Since January 2015, seven fast bowlers have made their debut for India, including Jasprit Bumrah, Barinder Sran, S. Aravind, Sandeep Sharma and Stuart Binny. The same period has seen Ashish Nehra, 36, make a comeback; he had last played a match for India in 2011.

“As a fast bowler one will always be optimistic of a comeback since there seems to be an opening across formats all the time. But staying over there (in the national team) for a longer period is our biggest challenge," says Rudra Pratap (R.P.) Singh, who last played for India in the 2011 Oval Test match against England.

This is the other indicator from the numbers—fast bowlers don’t have a long shelf life. There is always a vacancy because there is always someone who gets dropped.

“When the team needs a pacer desperately, they will do anything to accommodate him. Take the example of Mohammed Shami, who has not played an international game for almost a year and hasn’t proved himself adequately in domestic matches, yet he has been named in both the Asia Cup and World Cup (T20) squads," says Ashok Malhotra, a former India selector.

Rise and fall of fast bowlers

The selectors seem to be looking for an exciting fast bowler all the time and waste no time in handing over an India cap as soon as they see a ray of hope. One example is Munaf Patel. Dennis Lillee, the legendary fast bowler from Australia and the director of the MRF Pace Foundation from 1987-2012, spoke of a boy from a poor background who was the fastest bowler in India at that point in time. There had already been plenty of hype when that boy—19-year-old Patel—made his debut in first-class cricket in 2003. Within three years, despite being injured and on the sidelines often, he made his India debut. Another three years and a drastic drop in pace later, he was on the fringes of the Indian team. By 2011, after playing just 13 Tests, Patel’s career was more or less over.

The latest in the line of young pacers are Jasprit Bumrah, 22, and Barinder Sran, 23, both of whom made their debut in the recently concluded ODI and T20 series in Australia.

Nathu Singh, 20, who made his Ranji debut in the 2015-16 season and was bought by Mumbai Indians for a whopping 3.2 crore in the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction last week, will soon be added to this list of young quicks who got quick opportunities.

“Fast bowlers should be young and raw. Unlike batsmen who get better with age, first-class cricket exposure and experience, the genuine quick can be fast-tracked into international cricket," says Malhotra, former coach of the Bengal Ranji team. “This was the case with Ishant Sharma because, at 22-23, you will get passionate bowlers who generally become line-and-length kind of trundlers when they are 28-29."

Sran and Bumrah will do well to heed Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s example. He made a solid international debut and was man of the Test series on the tour of England in 2014. Then he had a minor injury, was out of the team for a while, and that was that. He could never really get his place back, and has played just one Test for India since that England tour. There are remarkable similarities in the career arcs of Kumar and Varun Aaron, who made his Test debut at 21, in 2011, as India’s fastest bowler. He has played just nine Tests since, owing to injuries and lack of form.

“Our system often confuses a young pacer," says Lalchand Rajput, a former assistant coach of Team India and the man who played a pivotal role in developing Sharma as a bowler when he was the under-19 coach. “Bhuvi, who is a fine swing bowler, was asked to increase speed and that made him lose his swing. Umesh Yadav is constantly told about line and length, but his main strength is speed, and that shouldn’t be compromised."

Not just about pace

Historically, India has been a land of spinners. Only six pacers have taken 100 Test wickets in its history. Certainly, bowling long, fast spells over a sustained period doesn’t seem to be our strength, considering the fact that the majority of games are played in the subcontinent.

“Bowling just 140-plus kmph is not everything," says R.P. Singh. “If you look at our history from 1985 till 2008, it’s all about swing bowlers who are most successful."

The former Uttar Pradesh Ranji captain argues that Sri Lanka’s Chaminda Vaas, if not Pakistan’s Wasim Akram, should be looked on as an inspiration for subcontinental bowlers. He may not have been very fast, but he was a skilful and crafty swing bowler who troubled everyone at home and abroad.

Rajput echoes almost the same sentiment. “I distinctly remember a game against New Zealand in the 1980s in Rajkot. Danny Morrison was trying to bowl fast and short-pitched but was not reaching the waist height of the batsmen. On the other hand, Richard Hadlee troubled everyone with his movement alone," he says.

It’s no wonder that everyone keeps going back to Kapil Dev as an example of what needs to be done to be a successful fast bowler in India. Even Zaheer Khan, who started as a 140-plus kmph quick bowler, became a crafty swing bowler who often bowled at around 135 kmph, following Dev’s example.

Many pacers, like R.P. Singh, believe that sometimes their success abroad is unfairly held against them when they don’t get the same kind of results in home conditions. “I had a great tour of England in 2007, bowled well in the T20 World Cup after that and then had a fantastic tour of Australia in 2008. But just two average Test matches against South Africa in India were enough to discard me," says the Uttar Pradesh pacer, who has shifted base to Gujarat from this Ranji season in an attempt to revive his flagging career.

Rajput agrees that it’s tough being a fast bowler in India: “If a spinner is having a bad series abroad, he always has a great chance of improving his record on turning tracks at home in no time. On the contrary, if a fast bowler is having a rough home series, he may not be as lucky to revive his fortune since tours of Australia, South Africa, England and, to an extent, New Zealand—where pacers get help from the pitch—happen normally once in a four-year cycle," says Rajput.

Unfortunately, the trend of banking on only young legs in the pace department is catching on with IPL team owners as well. In the latest IPL auction held in Bengaluru, Munaf Patel remained unsold, R.P. Singh was sold for a meagre 30 lakh, and even Irfan Pathan (the most successful bowler in the domestic T20 competition which was held just ahead of the auction) got 1 crore. Compare that to Dhawal Kulkarni ( 2 crore), Mohit Sharma ( 6.5 crore), Jaydev Unadkat ( 1.6 crore), Sran ( 1.2 crore) and Nathu Singh ( 3.2 crore), and you can see the value given to newcomers over experience or craft.

“Naturally, the IPL has already started dictating what kind of bowlers India is looking for," says R.P. Singh. “This is not an ideal scenario. A senior player has to bowl 30 overs with good pace in first-class cricket to get a five-wicket haul, but for youngsters, you just need to have sheer pace to get noticed."

Rajput and Malhotra don’t find anything wrong in such an approach. They believe that the likes of Yadav, Aaron and Nathu Singh should be encouraged to bowl at a speed of 140-plus all the time because that is their core strength.

“I have been advocating for many years that the time has come to mark your bowlers for each format, based on their skill, and then train and nurture them accordingly," says Rajput.

Nehra sees the quick rise of young fast bowlers as a positive—the more talent that comes through, the better—but then there’s always the problem of a quick burnout.

“We have got some great talent no doubt," Nehra says. “Although there aren’t four bowlers we can say are truly established. But while there is plenty of talent, we need to look after the progress. Don’t expect a fast bowler will be a finished product overnight. You need to have patience dealing and nurturing them."

Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.