Have India travelled abroad with a better all-round bowling group than the one they have in the last one year so? They may have had better skilled bowlers here and there, but as a unit, the current crop of fast and spin bowlers has to be up there sitting alone. India have flexed their batting muscle -- their traditional strength -- in a couple of matches in the ongoing World Cup with the Big Three (the now-injured Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and skipper Virat Kohli) getting amongst big runs but credit for at least three of their wins in the five completed matches should go to their bowling.
Whether it’s the seaming wicket of Hampshire Bowl in the opening match (vs South Africa) or the slow turning track at the same venue (vs Afghanistan) or the two-paced square at Old Trafford (vs West Indies), where batsmen have struggled to come to terms with the sluggishness of the conditions, bowlers have showed their all-weather skills to sustain India’s unbeaten campaign.
At various stages of the tournament, pacers Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami and leg-spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have risen to the challenge to bail India out of trouble and provide that cloak of impregnability around them. The pacers have been fast, relentless and skillful while spinners have shown great guile without losing control over their craft. While they haven’t been without blemish, the ability to make up for another’s off-day has stood them in good stead.
There has been a certain pattern to the success of India’s attack in the event which is approaching its business end. After a man of the match winning performance in the opening match against the Proteas, Bumrah appeared to have slackened a bit but the likes of Bhuvneshwar and Hardik Pandya carried the day for India. Bumrah was back to his dangerous best again in the matches against Afghanistan and West Indies, providing crucial breakthroughs in the middle overs and derailing rivals’ chases.
In case opponents have survived the test of Indian pacers, the spin duo of Chahal and Kuldeep have inflicted the damage. Between the two they have taken 14 wickets with Chahal claiming 10 and Kuldeep four. Where Kuldeep’s four have come at an economy rate of 4.40, Chahal has conceded 5.47 runs an over – a bit costly in comparison but eminently acceptable going by the general trend in ODIs.
"Spinners get wickets when batsmen take chances,” said Kuldeep when pointed out that he hadn’t taken many wickets. “They know they can't take chance against spinners. That was their plan. If I don't get a wicket, the fast bowlers will take wickets. At the end, you have to look at the team's needs. If the run-rate increases, there will be pressure on them. We have to control games in the middle overs and get wickets in the end stages - be it fast bowlers or spinners," he reasoned.
In the top 10 bowlers with low economy rates (till the South Africa-Sri Lanka match on Friday), India have five bowlers with Mohammad Shami topping the chart with just 3.46 runs per over. Shami’s has to be the most compelling story of the World Cup insofar as India’s bowling group is concerned. He sat out first three matches as Bhuvneshwar Kumar was considered -- with justifiable reasons -- the better bowler in these conditions. An unfortunate injury to Uttar Pradesh paceman, however, opened the doors for Shami and his success has given the team management another option.
In two matches he has taken eight wickets, including a hat-trick against Afghanistan, to provide a lethal edge to India’s attack. As and when Bhuvneshwar is ready to play, the team management will have a lot of juggling to do but they would be happy to face the problem of whom to drop rather than whom to pick.
While the specialist bowlers have done a great job, all-rounder Hardik Pandya, who has chipped in with five wickets and more importantly 39 overs in five matches which is almost eight overs a match, has provided to depth and variety to Indian attack. On occasions, he has bowled a full quota of 10 overs while maintaining a reasonable economy rate that has eased the pressure on the bowling group. Bowling coach Bharat Arun admits it was a big challenge for the Baroda player to get through his 10 overs for a long time.
“Over a period time it was a big challenge for him to bowl those 10 overs, and he realised that to be able to bowl those 10 overs he needs to develop a certain armory in his bowling,” he noted. “And that's what he's worked on. He's worked on his slow balls, his slow bounces and also, he's worked on perfecting his bounces. So, all these put together have given him the confidence to go through those 10 overs.”
While Arun has worked on skills, technique and mental aspect of the bowlers, trainer Shanker Basu threw light on improved fitness levels that have helped them sustain that intensity for long periods. Things, however, didn’t fell in place overnight. It was the coming together of various stake holders – from team management to trainer and physio to bowlers. They all had to be on the same page to herald this welcome change. Just like batting, bowling and fielding, fitness has become a new skill set.
“I'm always aligned with the team management and the leadership group,” said Basu. “They wanted a fast bowling group that was good and that can go on and on and if you notice in the last one year, the proof of the pudding is there in the results. Bumrah, Shami, Ishant (Sharma), Bhuvi and Umesh (Yadav) have all started bowling much quicker. The reason for that is again, I wouldn't say we did any magic work. We did consistent work with few lifestyle modifications with regards to nutrition, the way we train.
“We made it a point, in 2015, that people train regularly. Just like batting, bowling and fielding, the new skill was fitness. And fitness was not just a ticking box. We had to take it very seriously. The captain and the coach wanted to use fitness as vehicle. And my job was to augment that process. And all I did was to make it a point that, this was another facet of the sport, and where we had to train like Olympic athletes. Just not like any other person, 'Okay I'll come for this camp, train for 10-15 days and then I'll take a break'. It has become a lifestyle, and I think once it has become a lifestyle, the results are there for you to see,” he explained.