India's bowling performances in the ongoing Test series against Sri Lanka have made for depressing viewing - and it gets worse when you consider the pedestrian stuff is being trotted out by a side that parades itself as the number one Test side in the world.
Injuries to Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth aside, the current lot of bowlers look anything but a world-class attack; bereft of skill, lacking in confidence, abdicating on intent, the bowling 'attack' has consistently looked incapable of taking 20 wickets. It is easy enough to blame the conditions, and it is not my argument that the conditions have been uniformly helpful - but that said, the attack led by Ishant Sharma has mentally surrendered mentally surrendered not to the conditions, but to their own self-doubts, their own lack of confidence in their abilities as pace bowlers.
On the spin side, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha look like human bowling machines - their bowling is mechanical, their intent is non-existent, and their performances are a sad commentary on India's cricketing system and an indictment of the BCCI's handling of the game.
To be fair, I don't blame Ishant and his colleagues alone for their plight. They are products of a system that is not merely commerce- or power-centric, but one that is seemingly anti-cricket, a sytem whose belief in a well-rehearsed yet genuinely flawed template extends to an unholy obsession with producing batsmen coupled with a continuing apathy towards other equally important departments of the game.
The easy way out would be to resort to cliches of the "Fast bowling was never our strength" excuse to explain lack of quality. But that is a cliché whose use-by date has long gone. In the likes of Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth, to cite just four examples, India has in recent times produced bowlers capable of being quick and incisive; the problem is that none of them has been able to last through a season, to maintain the edge. And that is as much the fault of the system as of the bowlers themselves - and the BCCI, in my opinion, bears much of the blame. Clearly, the Board knows what the problem is; it isn't quite as ignorant as we make it out to be - the problem is, it simply doesn't care. Let's explore that argument a little further:
Take the board's absurd diktats, dictated largely by politics and almost invariably contrary to the larger interests of the game. The board, thus, prevents Indian bowlers from plying their trade, during the off-season, in county cricket, which is often considered the best off-season training ground by leading cricketers.
So why are Indian bowlers not permitted to play in the county circuit? 'Fatigue', is the board's excuse; the officials in denying no objection certificates to the likes of Ishant Sharma say they are saving these bowlers for national duties. But that same board sees no dichotomy in having those bowlers go through the two month grind of the IPL, just ahead of a World Cup; the board sees no problem in scheduling meaningless fixtures into every available slot in the calendar.
There is a reason leading cricketers value county cricket so highly. On the circuit, you are taken out of your comfort zone; there exists none of the pampering you get as part of the Indian team. On the circuit you live on your own, you fend for yourself over a period of six months and, during that time, you bowl 15, 20 overs a day in circumstances that find you out if you are putting in less than your best. On the circuit, you cannot coast; you are forced to develop your skills, to add weapons to your arsenal, to learn the knack of performing day in and out.
Consider the case of Zaheer Khan, written off by most pundits as a bowler with neither the heart nor the discipline for the grind. He went to Worcestershire for the 2006 season, bowled 70-80 overs week in and week out, picking 78 wickets at New Road, and returned fitter, fresher and better than he had ever been before, his time on the circuit developing his skills to the point where ever since, he has been the undisputed leader of the Indian attack and arguably among the best left arm seamers in the world. This is what the likes of an Ishant Sharma, or an Irfan Pathan, should have been doing - not shooting ads in Shimla and Kochi.
Closer to home, the Indian domestic system is neither the best in the world, nor does it even try for such honors. Most captains of India's domestic teams - Ranji or Duleep Trophy - are usually batsman, and sadly, they think that way. The presumption is, we don't need to take 20 wickets to win a Ranji game. So you see sides playing with one seamer and three spinners on flat wickets; the game plan is to score 600+ runs over two days and then try to bowl the opposition out under that in the first innings. Outright wins are not part of this game plan - the focus is on getting a first innings lead and with it, a bonus point.
In such a situation, there is no incentive for a bowler to think 'win'. The captains want their bowlers to keep things tight, to keep the runs down, hoping that sheer boredom will get the other side out. Bowling defensively thus becomes a part of the bowler's mindset and, in time, it also becomes ingrained into his muscle memory. In other words, the Indian domestic system is totally anti-bowler; as a friend recently put it, the domestic circuit is the perfect killing ground for fast bowlers.
To make matters right, though we have sporadic tours, we don't really have an A-team culture, which is so necessary as a developmental platform for young talent. Well planned A tours allow developing talent the opportunity to play tough opposition on different kinds of surfaces and thus prepare for the international level; absent such a planned system, players are pitchforked into the world stage before they are ready, they get found out, lose their confidence, and get dumped before they know what hit them.
At the risk of getting some flak, let me jump off the fence and suggest that the IPL is doing its bit to kill off our bowling resources. My core argument is that constant immersion in Twenty20 cricket kills a fast bowler mentally (the odd exceptions, like say a Lasith Malinga or a Dale Steyn - bowlers whose natural gifts permit seamless transitioning to different formats -- merely prove my point).
So how does IPL hurt the bowler? Because that is the nature of the format. More often than not, it is the batsman who gets himself out rather than the bowler producing an unplayable delivery. The bowler knows, going in, that attacking lines and lengths will get hammered by batsmen who know runs, not survival, is the key; he therefore learns to bowl the restrictive line rather than the attacking one, and after a time it becomes ingrained.
Besides, no bowler likes to bleed runs, and when that happens over a period of 14 games, predominantly due to over-exposure to the format, it could possibly have a lasting bearing on not just his confidence, but also ability and rhythm - unless you're mentally strong enough to adapt to this format, which is not the case with Indian bowlers.
Ask RP Singh - he is the perfect example of potential squandered on the altar of T20 cricket/IPL; today, he neither has the skill to bowl attacking lines, nor the ability to contain. What makes matters worse is that increasingly, the national selectors pick and drop players for Tests and ODIs on the basis of their IPL/T20 form, which is clearly a travesty.
The same is the case for spinners - who, like the tiger, is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Again, they're victims of the domestic system that forces bowlers into defensive lines - anathema to the art of spin bowling. T20 immersion merely compounds the problem. A spinner in the T20 format goes in thinking 'containment'; such a mindset forces you to bowl flatter, quicker through the air, wicket to wicket without any attempt to turn the ball or to flight. Do that often enough, and it becomes part of the bowler's mindset; he is good only to contain runs with spread out fields.
That mindset works over the course of four overs - but in Tests and even ODIs, where batsmen have more time to work with, the defensive-minded spinner, bowling against his natural inclination, is found out. Batsmen work such bowlers relentlessly around, milking singles; frustration creeps in, bad balls proliferate, and before you know it, another promising spin career goes down the drain.
'Spin bowling' has been systematically reduced to an automaton: a few steps and a mechanical delivery stride, with no intention of giving the ball a tweak, or exploiting the surfaces at play. A left-arm over angle might well work in a T20 game, but in Test matches, it denies you an opportunity of picking a wicket, a prerequisite for a spinner (unless you're Paul Harris, paid to bowl that line, frustrate the batsman and work on a batsman's error, rather than inducing it).
Shane Warne was spot-on when he said that a modern day Test-match spinner must be a good Day 1 and a Day 5 bowler. Day 1, because you might have a role to play in keeping one end up, and Day 5, is when as a spinner you're expected to provide the thrust, and to chip in with the wickets.
Sadly, Harbhajan fits into neither category today, unless of course you're playing at Kanpur or Mumbai. He hasn't bowled a match-winning spell outside India for a while now, and at times looks completely hapless and unimaginative, totally out of ideas for someone who's supposed to be a "lead spinner". And of course, Indian cricket isn't willing to look beyond him for solutions, given his consistency when it comes to non-performance per-se. India must try out different options from the limited ones they have, be it a Ravichandran Ashwin or even a Piyush Chawla, to figure out if they're good enough to make the cut.
Finally, it's time to end this obsession with the World no. 1 ranking. The very short-term nature of the fixation blinds us all, metaphorically like a politician so eagerly wanting to stick his butt to the chair and start thinking five years from now. What cricket and particularly the bowling side of it needs, is to come out of the "We are like this only" mentality and to make a start at working towards a long-term vision for our cricket.