Is the current pace crop the best ever?

Is the current pace crop the best ever?

The current pace attack, comprising Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah with quality back up in Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav, has been dubbed India's best by Shami. Reuters/ AFP

From being the land of wily spinners to becoming a country with arguably the most exciting pace attack in the world at the moment, Indian bowling has undergone a huge metamorphosis.

Till the late 1970s, irrespective of where they played, Indian captains invariably used the "pacers" to take the shine off the new ball so that the spinners could come into play. Today, especially while playing abroad but very occasionally at home too, the role of the spinners has become increasingly nominal. India now regularly operate with three, sometimes even four, specialist fast bowlers while playing in pace-friendly conditions. The current attack has even been dubbed by many as the best ever Indian pace attack in terms of both quality and quantity, an opinion Mohammed Shami endorsed unabashedly in a recent interview.  

The complete turnaround didn't transpire overnight, though. If Kapil Dev ignited the fire in the belly as a strapping young fast bowler through the late 70s and 80s, the pure pace that a wiry Javagal Srinath generated in the 1990s left many in awe and inspired several others. Along the way came a plethora of talent which promised plenty but achieved much less.

The resurrection of Zaheer Khan following a stint in county cricket with Worcestershire in 2006 is one of the seminal events in the history of Indian pace bowling. Not only did the left-armer find a second wind, taking more than half of his career wickets since a stellar series in England in 2007, he also mentored a host of young bowlers like S Sreesanth, with whom he enjoyed a great partnership, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Irfan Pathan, Praveen Kumar and Shami himself, among others.

Despite pace piquing the interest of many youngsters, India seldom had the luxury of playing with three quality pacers for any extended period of time until now. From pre-independent India's Mohammad Nisar and Amar Singh to the ultra-successful Zaheer and Sreesanth, India’s new-ball bowlers often operated without adequate support. They were forced to depend on part-time pacers to share the load, or play alongside more than one spinner even if conditions dictated otherwise.

The phenomenal numbers that the current pace attack (we will take the troika of Ishant, Shami and Jasprit Bumrah for this analysis since they have played the most together) boasts underlines Shami's claim. The trio has bagged a whopping 149 wickets in just 11 Tests away from home - nine of which have been in England, Australia and South Africa. That means a stunning 13.5 wickets per Test between the three. The average (21.34) and strike rate (45.39) are as good as any world-class bowling attack can claim.

But, as Shami believes, are they the best in Indian history? How do Nisar-Amar, Kapil-Karsan Ghavri, Kapil-Manoj Prabhakar, Srinath-Venkatesh Prasad and Zaheer-Sreesanth fare against the current crop? The stats (see box) do suggest Ishant, Shami and Bumrah have been better than any combination, but sometimes numbers hide more than they reveal.

Against this backdrop, it’s worth pondering over a recent remark by Shaun Pollock, who highlighted the limitations that someone like Srinath had to contend with. Sometimes, he didn’t even have a second top-draw seamer to share the responsibility. After all, fast bowlers always hunt in pairs. This is true of all the previous pairs as well. Barring a Test or two in a series, India didn’t have the luxury of fielding three genuine pacers who otherwise would at best be competing for the third seamer’s slot in sub-continental conditions.

Look at the performance of pairs like Srinath and Prasad or Zaheer and Sreesanth. While Srinath and Prasad picked up eight wickets a Test between them (168 from 21 Tests), Zaheer and Sreesanth were a shade better at 8.5 wickets a Test (119 from 14). That they did so without much help from a third seamer puts their efforts in perspective. It’s the same scenario with Kapil and Prabhakar as well as Kapil and Ghavri, who sometimes resorted to left-arm spin too! Their high strike rates, not unlike Srinath-Prasad, are a result of a total absence or the lack of a quality third paceman.

That, however, doesn't in any way undermine the achievements of the current troika, who also have more than adequate back-ups in Umesh and Bhuvneshwar. They are just reaping the benefits of a system put in place a while back and the times they are playing in. And long may that continue.