Speed, variety, and the intelligence to work out modes of dismissal in all conditions—on all three counts, India’s current crop of pace bowlers has proven to be the best in the world. Australia’s pace bowling unit is equally formidable, as we can see in the demolition of England in the Ashes series. But the Aussie pace bowlers’ inability to vanquish a depleted Indian side at the start of 2021 puts into sharper relief what their Indian counterparts did.
The leaders of the pack, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, have been so good at bowling in tandem that it has masked India’s middle order batting conundrum. Between them, they took 13 of the 20 South African wickets in the first Test of the current series at Centurion. They kept the Proteas’ score below 200 in both innings, spearheading the breach of South Africa’s Test bastion where they had lost only two Tests previously.
The victory celebration to round off 2021 brushed under the carpet India’s dismissal for 174 in the second innings. It was only KL Rahul’s magnificent 123 and his opening partnership of 117 with Mayank Agarwal on the first day that gave the Indian bowlers enough runs to force a win in the end. South Africa needed two good partnerships to reach their target of 305 on a pitch that had eased up, but could not get a single partnership of over 50.
The relentless Bumrah and Shami picked up three wickets apiece, the upstart Mohammad Siraj chipped in with a brace, and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin polished off the tail. Forgotten in the euphoria was the vulnerability of India’s batting with three stalwarts getting a long rope despite averaging in the mid-twenties for two years. That’s not the batting strength one would associate with the world’s top-ranked Test team, but such is the force of India’s pace bowlers that it covers up a serious lacuna.
Change is overdue: The team management’s continuance with Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane appears inexplicable, despite their lean runs from the start of 2020, interspersed with the odd contribution that extends the long rope given to them. Here’s India’s chance to ride on the back of the world’s best pace battery to rectify a history of being dubbed ‘tigers at home, lambs abroad’. But without enough runs on the board, even lion-hearted pace bowlers will break down, and India will not be doing justice to a historic opportunity.
Perhaps the fact that skipper Virat Kohli’s batting average of 26 from the start of 2020 is just as poor as those of Pujara and Rahane makes it harder to drop them. But Kohli did have an outstanding year in 2019 when he averaged 68, whereas Pujara’s lean trot goes all the way back to January 2019 when he got his last Test century. And Rahane’s career average going below 40 does not make a case for letting him try to regain form. Kohli also has the advantage of playing in the limited overs and IPL teams against international bowlers, unlike Pujara and Rahane.
Shreyas Iyer must be wondering what more he has to do to get into the playing eleven after his century and fifty on debut bailed out India in the Kanpur Test against New Zealand just five weeks back. There are several others like Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, and Ruturaj Gaikwad who deserved a chance in the Test side in the absence of the injured Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill. Prithvi Shaw, who made a century on Test debut, could also stake a claim for a second chance after being dropped.
Back the pacers: India’s selectors and team management owe it to fans and the bowlers to make the change in the batting lineup that has been long overdue. After making a duck and 3 in the first innings, Rahane and Pujara will be desperate for yet another career-saving knock in the second innings. But even a knock like that may not serve India the best going forward, because the time has come for a new set of batsmen to back up the pace bowlers, who deserve all the Test victories they can get when they’re in peak form.
Bumrah and Shami even saved India the blushes with an 89-run unbroken stand with the bat on the final day at Lord’s in England in August, after a batting collapse threatened to undo all the good work they had done to keep things on par in the first innings. Then they went out and blitzed England out for 120 in 51 overs in the last two sessions of the Test.
Bumrah’s unusual angles, pace, and variations keep him in the hunt in most conditions. Shami’s enviable seam position and the unerring accuracy with which he forces the batsman to negotiate ball after ball, moving both ways off the seam, make him the hardest Indian bowler to face when he’s fit, and the pitch offers some assistance as it usually does in South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia. And Siraj’s five-wicket haul in Brisbane at the start of 2021, leading the attack in the absence of Bumrah and Shami in only his third Test, shows India’s depth of pace bowling now.
The performance of Avesh Khan in the IPL, the promise of the equally tall and pacy Prasidh Krishna, and a newbie from Kashmir, Umran Malik, who clocked 153 kmph in the last IPL season, augur well for India’s pace bowling department to be well stocked in the years ahead. What India lack in comparison with Australia and South Africa is a world class left-armer. The Aussie and SA bowlers do have a height advantage for bouncy tracks, but the advent of Khan and Krishna would bring some parity there too.
It’s only a question of how long it takes India’s cricket administrators to reap the full benefits of the wealth of talent emerging in the IPL so that Indian fans can enjoy a golden era instead of watching old stalwarts struggle.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.