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Indian cricket began to get pacy in the nanosecond 90s, so named for its sudden acceleration of everything, but it wasn’t really until the pre-pandemic decade that we could use words like ‘spearhead’ for our team’s bowling attack with a straight face. The speed of a ball’s delivery lends the game spunk not just for its risk of impact, but by snapping the batsman’s response time to less than what the human mind minimally needs just to process it and perform a stroke. Since every split-second counts, that crucial gap makes it a contest of wills, minds and instincts, with wielders of the bat and ball vying to outwit each other. If cricket’s most catchy format has turned fast and furious, so has its quest to push speed limits. Of late, the collective breath of Indian Premier League (IPL) fans has been taken by a recent find of Sunrisers Hyderabad, Umran Malik, a pacer from Jammu & Kashmir whose deliveries have whizzed past 150kmph with ease. On Sunday, he clocked 154kmph in Pune. He may not be closing in on Pakistani bowler Shoaib Akhtar’s global record of a bit over 160kmph, but talent-spotters reckon that Malik could become India’s ‘fastest ever’ with some chisel work on his art. If so, that may be enough for his inclusion in India’s T20 squad.

Apart from the palpitations that it tends to inspire, pace in itself means little unless it is aimed well. Malik’s famous Pune pitch-scorcher was on the stumps but struck for four runs anyway by Chennai Super Kings’ opener Ruturaj Gaikwad; another dazzler of his at 154kmph a few overs later gave Mahendra Singh Dhoni a single. In his spell of 4 overs, Malik conceded 48 runs. Yet, by the career statistics of this 22-year-old who made his IPL debut only last year, he hasn’t fallen prey to any visible trade-off of pace versus accuracy. As for strike success, his 5-wicket haul in Mumbai on 27 April that took apart the batting line-up of Gujarat Titans has been held up as evidence of efficacy. And as T20 captains everywhere turn to strike bowling over run economy in their game plans, India would need to gear up for this October’s ICC World Cup in Australia with a pace attack that can flip a scoreboard around at short notice.

A global edge on speed may be within reach. It would require India’s team to sharpen its ‘spear’ not just to maximize strikes—which is often about technique variation and uplifting arts like ‘reverse swing’—but to achieve it within a frame of consistency that’s kept free of injury. With about 5.5km for a pacer to cover by foot during a typical T20 match, much of it in full pep over a long run-up, athletic workouts aimed at upper-torso and leg brawn are a given. What counts for plenty is ‘core stability’: the ability, i.e., to control the position and motion of one’s trunk over the pelvis for optimal force. Prep inputs have grown sophisticated over the past decade. For instance, after studies revealed a data link between an extended front knee and faster deliveries, an advantage traced loosely to better transfer of kinetic energy, the competitive focus in some training circles shifted to the ‘eccentric strength’ of one’s landing leg. Such bowling is high-risk, high-return on the injury front, but if eccentric fitness can buy nanoseconds to fox an opponent, it can hardly be passed up. Other data readings, meanwhile, could be used to help sync the captain’s allotment of overs with the ideal aerobic cycles of strike bowlers. For a good chance of victory Down Under, all that anyone has ever learnt about the art of pace bowling should be deployed to boost Indian talent.

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