Prem Panicker

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Prem has been writing about cricket since 1996 -- and sometimes wishes he hadn't.

Fast track to the slow lane

'Tis the World Cup, ergo the season of lists. One such, on Cricinfo the other day, listed some of the great bowling performances from past editions of the tournament -- a list dominated, incidentally, by fast men ranging from Joel Garner to Lasith Malinga, with every shade of swing and seam in-between.

Missing from the list was one Indian performance I'd personally rate in my top ten -- both for the skill on display, and for the impact the spell had on the fortunes of the side. Here is the match report of that game, and from that, a clip on the spell itself:

Ashish Nehra came in to the attack in the 13th over - and from that point on, England were reduced to spectators in the Nehra road show. The initial question was whether the recent injury would effect his rhythm. It did not. The next question was whether that burst of pace in the earlier game was a flash in the pan - it was not, as Nehra quickly moved up the gears to a top pace, on the day, of 145.8. The final question was, could he maintain the pressure generated by Srinath and Zaheer.

He did, and how. After joining Srinath and Zaheer in the beat-Nasser's-bat game for a bit, he produced the perfect delivery, slanting across the right hander and seaming late; Hussain hung his bat out in a display of rank bad batsmanship and got the edge.

Alec Stewart fell victim to the unplayable ball too early. The first ball that he received angled across to off, swinging in the air to land on line of middle on a full length and straighten to take the pad bang in front - and Nehra found himself on the verge of a hat-trick.

Fired up, Nehra then produced an exhibition of seam and swing bowling that ranks with the best seen in a long time. The England batsmen were reduced to a sideshow as Nehra bent the ball both ways at will, got lift off the deck and kept going up and down the pace scale like a virtuoso.

The batsmen, quite simply, gave up the struggle. Vaughan first, then Paul Collingwood, fell to the delivery slanting across, hitting line of off, drawing them forward and finding the edge. Craig White and Ronnie Irani departed in identical fashion to give Nehra his six-wicket haul, and it was left to Andy Flintoff to play the lone innings of character and sense.

Like all great performances, this one had a storyline that extends beyond the game itself. As I wrote in this companion piece, it spelt the end of the World Cup campaign of one of India's greatest bowling champions; on a more uplifting note, it marked the beginning of an amazing resurgence that was to carry the team all the way through into the finals:

Nehra has a celebratory style all his own -- a kangaroo leap in the air, then a swooping, airplaning run across the field with arms spread wide, like a plane at take off. On the day, he "takes off" so often, you would think Kingsmead, Durban, was LA International Airport.

The cameras, meanwhile, flash to the team's dressing room -- where the plethora of managers this team is blessed wore smiles wider, if that is possible, than the successful bowler's.

Only one man sits pensive: Anil Kumble, torn between rejoicing over his mate's performance on the field, and the excruciating fear that he could have played his last Cup game.

That is how sport is -- one gets to rewrite his own destiny and, in doing so, he erases another's. Even as you create your own myth, you shatter that of a comrade, a colleague, a mate -- and therein lies the beauty, and heartless cruelty, of sport at the highest level.

The Cricinfo list has 11 names; I'd submit that Nehra for his deeds that day and the contextual backdrop of that performance deserves at the very least to be 12th man in the roster of outstanding bowling performances.

Reprising the familiar narrative arc of Indian "fast bowlers", the left-armer with the toothy grin has fallen away since those heady days when he clocked 149.5 kmph on the speed gun and surprised the otherwise unflappable Andy Flower with venomous pace. The new Nehra is gentler in pace, less pronounced in movement, more reliant on accuracy and honesty, yeomanlike plugging away to achieve his results.

Tangentially related, Munaf Patel is another bowler who early on showed promise of pace and fire, before slipping into a more workmanlike mode. Karthik Krishnaswamy profiles him in the Indian Express:

Munaf 2.0 is an extremely effective performer in his own right, and has become, thanks to his recent displays against New Zealand and South Africa, India’s second automatic pace pick in the 50-over game behind Zaheer Khan.

Like McGrath, Munaf approaches the crease at a stately trot, cocks his wrist under his chin as he moves adjacent to the umpire and skips economically into an upright delivery position. Like the Australian, Munaf delivers from extremely close to the stumps, and smiles only if Hawk-Eye tells him that his previous ball was on course to hit the top of off-stump.

The similarities, though, end there. Where McGrath’s arm was vertical, Munaf’s comes down from around eleven o’ clock. As a result, his stock delivery angles away from the right-hander.

“If you have a slightly round-arm action, the natural tendency is for the arm to come across the body and angle the ball away,” says TA Sekhar, who smoothed out the rough edges in Munaf’s bowling at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai.

This angle multiplies the potency of Munaf’s off-cutter, coaxing batsmen to reach away from the body, creating a gate for the ball to duck into. In keeping with his reticent personality, this in-ducker doesn’t break back massively. But it does enough. “Because he bowls so straight, and from so close to the stumps, the ball has to come in only about a centimetre,” says Mukesh Narula, who coaches Baroda, Munaf’s Ranji Trophy team.

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