As I watched Ishant Sharma getting carted around McLean Park a few days ago by the supposedly No. 9-ranked team in the world, a weird thought occurred to me. Ishant is 25 years old. At his age, fast bowlers are usually bowling at their quickest , in the shape of their life physically and are at the peak of their abilities. Yet here was Ishant trundling along at 130 kph and bowling floaty, loopy deliveries that I could probably hit if I practised for a few months against a bowling machine at my local club.
The contrast with his first two years in international cricket is so baffling that it doesn’t even register in the mind any more. Remember Perth 2008? Remember the MCG ODI on that tour? There was Ishant, bowling at 150 kph+ and being compared to Jason Gillespie by the Australian commentators, getting the likes of Ponting and Symonds out with beauties and here he was five years later doing his best impression of Ronnie Irani having a bad day with the ball.
So, what the hell happened to Ishant Sharma? It’s a question asked so often that it’s almost become a cliche now. But Ishant is just the latest example in a depressingly familiar trend which has plagued that so endangered of species – the Indian fast bowler. The names just roll off the tongue – Irfan Pathan, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, RP Singh, and so on. All of them regularly bowled balls over 145 kph at some point early on in their careers and looked like they would end up with 250 wickets at 25 by the time they finished. But one by one they have faded away and are ending up with careers that failed to live up to their potential.
A number of factors can be attributed to these regressive trends among our seamers – the dead wickets we play on in India, excessive ODI cricket which tires out our bowlers, poor fitness levels which leads to injuries, etc. But I’m afraid none of these things are addressing the core issue – which I believe is the ‘attitude’.
Attitude is key in cricket, especially for a fast bowler. In fact, it’s more important than just raw pace (although pace helps). Allan Donald is known for saying that natural aggression is the key to fast bowling. The best fast bowlers had that in spades. Apart from Donald, think of any other great fast bowlers – the two Ws, Curtly Ambrose, Glenn McGrath, and more recently, Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee, Steyn, etc.
One thing they all had or have in common is the fact that they are naturally aggressive characters. In fact, at the start of his career, I was very impressed by how aggressive Zaheer Khan was, and as it happens to be, he is the most successful fast bowler India has produced in the past decade. It’s a pity he has regressed, but that’s more due to the fact that he’s gotten older, rather than this early career fall-off that we tend to see among the other Indian quicks.
By ‘natural aggression’ I don’t mean sledging or abusing the batsman; in fact, far from it. I mean the desire to get the batsman out at every instant of the game; the sheer willpower and sense of purpose that conveys to the batsman, “I’m a fast bowler and I’m looking to get you out by hook or by crook. I will bowl bouncers, I will nick you off or knock your stumps out of the ground. Every ball I bowl is an attempt to either dismiss you immediately or set you up for a planned dismissal. I don’t care about containing the run-flow, instead I am looking to send you back to the pavilion. I may be hurt, I may not be feeling my best, it may be 40 degrees out in the sun, I may be sweating bullets, but I don’t care, I’m here to get you out.”
If you have that attitude, you will naturally work hard on your fitness, in order to be able to tirelessly bowl long spells in unforgiving conditions. The harder you work on it, the less likely you are to get injured (or let injuries affect your performance).
Wasim Akram was one of the fittest cricketers of all time. Shane Bond’s career was beset by injuries, but never once did he slacken his pace. Brett Lee broke bones in his feet; his back went through hell throughout his career, but never once did he let that affect his bowling speed. In the Big Bash League, even at an age of 37, we could see pictures of “Binga” in that powerful delivery stride, landing on that back leg and exploding that hip forward. Even the much-maligned Shoaib Akhtar never lost pace or venom.
We Indians often look across the border with jealousy, and wonder how Pakistan so easily produces aggressive, wicket-taking fast bowlers, while we find it hard to do so. The wickets are the same (in fact they are probably even flatter), the weather is just as hot and dry, and they look and talk just like us. It’s not just pace – contrary to popular belief not all Pakistani fast bowlers are that fast. Aaqib Javed bowled slower than Javagal Srinath, for example.
It’s all in the attitude – Indian fast bowlers, unlike their Pakistani counterparts, too often get into a defensive mode of just bowling line and length and trying to build pressure rather than actually trying to get people out. It doesn’t help that over the years Indian captains (with the exception of Sourav Ganguly and to an extent Rahul Dravid) have set really defensive fields for fast bowling.
MS Dhoni, for example, is tactically poor when it comes to managing his fast bowlers. Too often have we seen him taking slips out and putting them in cover positions or sending deep points out when batsmen have just come to the crease. That sort of captaincy kills the rhythm of a fast bowler. Fast bowlers are key weapons when India travel outside the subcontinent, and Dhoni’s field settings don’t change even when we go overseas.
Our bowling coaches are unfortunately also to blame. The BCCI’s solution to our fast bowling woes has always been – hire a bowling coach from a non-Asian country. What will a state cricketer from South Africa or Australia know on how to bowl fast in Indian conditions? Obviously they’ll just fall back to cliches – bowl line and length, try to hit the top of off, etc. Which our bowlers end up doing with no venom and get smashed around. This destroys their confidence and they struggle even when they play overseas in helpful conditions.
I’m not saying the solution is to hire Wasim Akram as our bowling coach (although that would be great), but it is to simply inculcate a proper fast-bowler’s attitude from a young age. Lack of fast bowlers who can have prolonged successful careers is what holds back India from exerting their dominance in world cricket.