Hamstrung by Z-factor

Cricket

Hamstrung by Z-factor

HUGE VOID:  The absence of Zaheer Khan hit India hard in the Test series against England.

Zaheer Khan walked away injured on the opening day of the first Test at Lord’s, but his absence was talked about till the last day of the final Test at The Oval as India stumbled to defeat after defeat in their worst beating in over four decades. As much as it spoke of the paceman’s unqualified skills, it also exposed India’s over-reliance on one bowler to form the attack, which actually appears a misnomer in Zaheer’s unavailability.

The left-arm pacer undoubtedly has been one of the key architects in India’s rise to the top as a Test nation. If 50 wickets in 15 Tests from 2007 to 2009 helped India snatch the numero uno position from Australia, his even more impressive haul of 63 wickets in the next 14 matches till date greatly contributed in Mahendra Singh Dhoni and company maintaining their number one ranking for nearly two years.

Hamstrung as early as in the second session of the opening Test, Zaheer left a huge void in India’s bowling that they couldn’t fill. Coupled with an unprecedented batting failure, the visitors were made to eat humble pie by a well-rounded England. While the batting, the more experienced component and with much better credentials, obviously had to cop the major chunk of criticism for India’s inexplicable debacle, the young bowling unit can’t escape scrutiny. If anything, the Indian bowling needs more urgent attention than the batting.

To be fair, Praveen Kumar (five innings) and Ishant Sharma (six innings), who between them sent down a whopping 332 overs, bowled their hearts out. There was no lack of effort from the youngsters, but often, the two were left high and dry due to lack of support from the other end. Barring the first innings at Trent Bridge where Dhoni’s men enjoyed rare bowling success, never did the Indian attack work in unison, which was in stark contrast to the English attack which had the hunting-in-pack mentality about it. The Lord’s Test was a classic example of India’s inability to build on early success. After Zaheer had limped off the field, Praveen did exceedingly well to claim five wickets but found little support from other bowlers as England built a big total. In the second innings, Ishant had opened up England’s batting, reducing them to 107 for six after a fiery spell of 5-3-4-3 but with others failing to do any damage, the hosts wheeled away without much trouble. It was a similar story in the second innings at Trent Bridge, where India dismissed both the openers cheaply with England still in arrears, but once again India let them off the hook.

While Praveen did keep the batsmen guessing with movement both in the air and off the pitch, his lack of pace encouraged them to stand out of the crease and negate swing. Ishant had his moments, the only Indian bowler who came close to rattling the English batsmen with pace, but he often fed their strengths. S Sreesanth, after initial promise in the second Test, failed to match expectations and less said the better about RP Singh.
Unlike the English pacemen, who had both pace and movement, the Indian bowlers had just one quality. Praveen swung the ball but had negligible pace, Ishant had the pace but couldn’t move the ball as much as Praveen did. Sreesanth, with the ability to swing the ball at more than decent pace, could have been India’s trump card in these conditions but he couldn’t test the batsmen on a consistent basis for any length of time.

“I have always said that if you don’t have some of the bowlers that are 145 or more, you need to be clever in the way you put your attack together. We have been successful at that in the past,” pointed out bowling coach Eric Simons, analysing the Indian bowlers’ flop show. “We haven’t had that bowler bowling at that pace but we have strategised well so far. This is the only series I have seen where both our bowling and batting have failed collectively,” reasoned the South African.

But then, India’s bowling strategies have always been devised around Zaheer and it has been proven on more than one occasion that in his absence, the Indian attack appears rudderless. If there ever was a need for evidence to justify this, then the drubbing at the hands of England should suffice. It’s a timely reminder for India to build a pool of quality fast bowlers.

“It will be very important to groom a few bowlers or have the bench strength,” noted skipper Dhoni about the way forward. “If we keep playing with the same bowlers and don’t give exposure to some of the youngsters as to how international cricket looks like, we may be forced at some point to straightaway bring them to play Test cricket which can be tough on them. You need to plan it a bit and hopefully utilise the time in between in the best possible manner.”

First and foremost, India would do well to begin looking beyond Zaheer, nearing 33 and looking increasingly injury-prone. That’s not to say that he should be discarded totally, for he will walk into any 11 in the world when fit. But just as India have to prepare for life without the Dravids, the Tendulkars and the Laxmans, they will also have to start seeking alternatives and grooming youngsters so that as and when the young guns are pushed at the highest level, they are not found wanting either in skills or stamina.

Durability should be the watchword for India when they decide to build a bowling bench-strength. While they may tide over the absence of key bowlers like Zaheer or Harbhajan Singh at home, it is hard to pull off the same act in alien conditions. “It’s important not to lose bowlers, especially when you are not in the sub-continent,” said Dhoni, pointing to his limited resources in. “Manoeuvring three specialist bowlers becomes very difficult and using part-timers who are usually spinners doesn’t help much,” he added.

On the England tour alone, India were hit by injuries to three of their front-line pacemen.

Besides Zaheer’s hamstring strain, Praveen sustained a left ankle strain that forced him to miss the final Test while Ishant was ruled out of the one-dayers with ligament injury in his left ankle. Given the hectic international schedule, players’ bodies are bound to give in at some stage but a better injury-management system, and a larger and fitter bowling group will go a long way towards avoiding a repeat of the forgettable experiences in England.

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