Indian pacemen from Nissar to Bumrah

India's wait for for sustained, express speed has been long since the days of Mohammad Nissar (L). Photos: Wikipedia/DH

Amidst the recent successes of Indian pacers and the number of pacemen knocking on selectors’ doors, it is easy to forget that fast bowling hasn’t traditionally been the side’s strong suite. The two men who took the new ball in India’s first-ever Test in 1932 – the genuinely fast Mohammad Nissar and medium pacer Amar Singh who Wally Hammond said “came off the pitch like the crack of doom” – had heralded better things than the more-than-four-decade-drought in fast bowling talent that followed.

That was the era when medium-paced, mostly batting all rounders and even specialist batsmen prepped the ball for spinners, and it was largely left to a diminutive Mumabikar, Ramakant Desai (28 Tests over 1959 to 1968), to bring zip to the attack. The one man who looked capable of taking Nissar’s speed legacy forward, a Tamil police officer named Commandur Rangachari, played only four Tests, all in 1948.

Kapil Dev’s arrival in 1978, and his early tandem years with Karsan Ghavri, Madan Lal, and Roger Binny, gave India its first semblance of a pace unit. It was strictly a semblance. For they rarely played as a group, and none was capable of the fearsome pace that Australians, Englishmen, and West Indians had been unleashing.

It was in the mid-eighties, by which time Ghavri had retired and Lal and Binny were on their last legs, that India really began recognising its pace problem. This owed to several reasons. The emerging spin talent was not a match for the now-retired famed spin quartet, and it made sense to build a pace unit around Kapil who had become a force to be reckoned with. The 1983 World Cup win had given a taste of what success felt like, and it was clear that pace would be key to emulating powerhouse-not-too-long-ago Australia and the now-all conquering West Indies. One also suspects that there was some amount of envy against neighbours and arch rivals Pakistan who had been churning out quality pacemen since Fazal Mahmood.

The new-found interest in assembling a pace unit had three fall-outs. First, India began hunting worthy partners for Kapil. Bharat Arun, Raju Kulkarni, Salil Ankola, Sanjeev Sharma, and Vivek Razdan were tried but impressed little, and it was initially with Chetan Sharma and subsequently Manoj Prabhakar that things settled. Chetan would render Kapil able support and Prabhakar would go on to emerge a challenging customer in his own right, but both remained short of world class. Second, the MRF Pace Foundation would kick-off under the mentorship of Dennis Lillee in 1987. Over a dozen of its alumni have donned the India Test cap since.

The third and perhaps most interesting fall-out was the fan conversation the somewhat disappointing search for Kapil’s partner would spark. Much of it centered around why express fast bowling did not come naturally to Indians. Some said the hot tropical climate sapped enthusiasms. Others blamed elitist mindsets, where hard physical labor such as fast bowling demanded was considered menial. Then there were the more mundane explanations: Lifeless pitches, coaches who curbed natural fast bowling instincts with mumbo-jumbo about control, and selectoral whim.

Of course, there were those who pointed out that much of this was hogwash as the Pakistani pace factory did not appear impacted despite similar weather, pitches, selectors, and class consciousness. Which, of course, meant India’s bare fast bowling cupboard probably had to do with vegetarian diets and docile outlooks to life! The hunt for speed must begin among the assertive, strapping, meat-loving lads of the North went the refrain.

That theory went out the window when two Kannadigas, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, took over the mantle in the post-Kapil years, and Srinath, the pacier of the two, was revealed a staunch vegetarian.

The ball started rolling with Srinath and Prasad, and Zaheer Khan would continue the good work though not always with steady or consistently performing company. Nevertheless, incremental improvements in domestic pitches, improved coaching facilities along with a new breed of coaches not pushing for sacrifices of pace, and realisation that spaces had opened for fast bowling, particularly under the new breed of aggressive Indian captains Sourav Ganguly onwards, ensured that more players saw prospects in fast bowling and pursued it in earnest.

Besides Zaheer, six other pacers – Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Irfan Pathan, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, and S Sreesnath – have featured in more than 20 Tests for India since 2001. The crop may not be doing enough to merit a regular place in the side, but there’s always a paceman to turn to, rather a group of pacemen to pick from. That is a good place to be, also a rare one for India.

At present, Shami, Ishant Sharma, and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar are in the mix, the likes of Navdeep Saini have demonstrated their readiness for bigger things, and Jasprit Bumrah is drawing high praise from discerning observers. Bumrah is also making the speed gun leap. Before him, Srinath, Yadav, Ashish Nehra, and Varun Aaron did that too, but not long enough. If only Bumrah would persist with the habit. Our wait for sustained, express speed has been long.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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