Making a quick mark in fast lane

Making a quick mark in fast lane

Pacers led by Ishant have done an impressive job

Making a quick mark in fast lane

When Mahendra Singh Dhoni boarded flight for the Champions Trophy, he would have been slightly doubtful about whether his attack, led by an inconsistent Ishant Sharma, could measure up to the conditions in England.

He would also have been wary if his young batting line-up, without the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, could cope with the challenges thrown at them. While the Indian batting has sprung a pleasant surprise, bowlers too have consistently strung together impressive performances not seen in the recent past.

Come to think of it, not since the trio of Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, who formed a potent force during India’s 2003 World Cup campaign in South Africa, has an Indian pace group fired the imagination. There is, of course, no comparison between the two attacks. Srinath had come out of retirement, Zaheer had installed himself as the leader of the pack by then and it was an established fact that Nehra, if fit, was as dangerous as anyone in swinging and seaming conditions. 

The Indian pace unit (among the playing 11) in the Champions Trophy presents quite a contrasting picture. Ishant, despite having played 51 Tests and 59 one-day internationals, is yet to assume leadership role. Between them Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav have the experience of 13 Tests and 33 one-dayers. This is only the first time Yadav is bowling in English conditions while for Bhuvneshwar this is the first international assignment outside of India.

Yet, the three, with no insignificant assistance from the spin duo of Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin, have churned out inspiring performances which are at once exciting and encouraging. Until the semifinal, their success was largely attributed to the sub-continental nature of the pitches here. On Thursday in the semifinal, in overcast Cardiff, they relentlessly tested Sri Lankan batsmen with swing, seam, bounce and pace -- a rare sight for an Indian supporter.

It was not that the batsmen did not have the requisite skill to overcome the challenge. Kumar Sangakkara had struck a flowing unbeaten 134 against England, who arguably possess the best pace combination at present, and Mahela Jayawardene had hit a match-winning 84 against Australia. If anyone could have tamed the Indian pacers, it was this battle-hardened Lankan duo. But a supremely confident bowling attack exploited helpful conditions so perfectly that even the two of the finest batsmen could never feel set.

What's interesting about India’s pacers is that despite all being right-arm operators, they boast enough variation in their mix to keep monotony at bay. Bhuvneshwar is very much the conventional swing bowler, getting the new ball to move both ways. Ishant, whose very place in the playing 11 had been questioned before the semifinal, is essentially a hit-the-deck-hard seam bowler whose pace can be disconcerting if pitched in the right areas. Yadav is probably the one Indian bowler who fits into the fast-bowler category. His ability to swing at good pace makes him a more dangerous proposition.   
The pace bowling unit is still a work in progress but with the average age of the three being just 24, it’s an encouraging sign for India in the longer run. Of course, there will be injury concerns and loss of form and there needs to be a strong bench-strength. This is, perhaps, the first occasion in a long time that Dhoni has had the comfort of having most of his first-choice pacers injury free. With at least half a dozen of them down with various injuries of varying degrees, Dhoni had struggled to put up a decent attack when England and Pakistan travelled India for back-to-back ODI series late last year. 
Against Pakistan and England, Shami Ahmed had proved quite effective but his exclusion since then has been surprising. “We need to groom the whole lot,” Dhoni had said during the England ODI series with a particular stress on Shami. “He is someone who bowls at a good pace. So, we need to keep going with these guys (Bhuvneshwar and Shami), back them and give them a bit cushioning so that in future they become very good bowlers for us.” At the moment, however, Dhoni would just be enjoying the rare luxury he has been granted.