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The fast phenomenon in cricket

Do socio-economic backgrounds influence what a cricketer chooses to become - a fast bowler or batsman, finds out Madhu Jawali
Last Updated 04 September 2022, 04:20 IST
Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Credit: AFP file photo
Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Credit: AFP file photo
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Umesh Yadav. Credit: PTI file photo
Umesh Yadav. Credit: PTI file photo
Thangarasu Natarajan. Credit: AFP file photo
Thangarasu Natarajan. Credit: AFP file photo

The true democratisation of cricket, which for the most part of pre- and post-independent India remained an urban indulgence, truly began with the arrival of a certain MS Dhoni, who showed that aspirants from the hinterland could dare to dream big. Though he hailed from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand with a population of over a million, it was still an outpost in the country's cricketing landscape. The ratio between small-town and big-city players in the various national cricket sides is still skewed, but it's progressively narrowing. And that gap is closing mainly because of the bowlers, especially those belonging to the ‘fast’ category.

Take the present Indian team at the Asia Cup, and let’s see how many fast bowlers come from the metropolises, the traditional cricketing bastions. The answer is a big zero. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is from Meerut - a bustling town in Uttar Pradesh, agreed, but no Mumbai. Avesh Khan belongs to Indore - an aspirational city in Madhya Pradesh but certainly no Bengaluru. The third in the group is Arshdeep Singh, born in Guna in MP who now plays for Punjab. Even the lone fast-bowling all-rounder, Hardik Pandya, comes from Vadodara, which in the past has also given India Irfan Pathan.

You don't need to employ the services of a data mining company to come to the conclusion that while big cities have primarily bred great batsmen, it’s the small towns that have thrown up pacers of equal pedigree. A cursory glance at India's top three batsmen and fast bowlers (not including any of the current players) could be the starting point. Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid belong to two megacities steeped in cricketing culture while Kapil Dev, Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath, on the other hand, were products of less-privileged cricketing stops.

From Mohammad Nisar to Mohammed Shami and Amar Singh to Arshdeep Singh, most of the Indian fast bowlers have come from mofussil areas and with not-so-privileged backgrounds. There may be exceptions in terms of financial status because not all of them are rags-to-riches stories, but the numbers are too overwhelming to ignore the truism that the place and the socio-economic milieu unique to such places greatly influence what discipline a cricketer chooses as his core area.

Let's look at the current India and fringe fast bowlers: Jasprit Bumrah, Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Bhuvneshwar, Avesh, Arshdeep, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur, Umran Malik, T Natarajan, Navdeep Saini, Prasidh Krishna, Yash Dayal, Mukesh Kumar, Chetan Sakariya, Deepak Chahar… Among these, only Bumrah, Prasidh, Thakur and Siraj are from metros, while the rest learned the basics of their trade in towns of varying sizes and facilities not even remotely comparable to big state capitals.

"Maybe, just maybe, it's to do with the facilities," says former India pacer R Vinay Kumar, who picked up the rudiments in Davangere, which boasted little to no cricket infrastructure when he was growing up. "Choosing bowling was easy in the sense that I didn't have to invest too much. Batting means, I have to buy a decent quality bat, a pair of pads and gloves, helmet, abdomen guard etc, etc. If I want to be a bowler, I just have to buy a pair of bowling spikes," notes Vinay, whose father drove an autorickshaw before graduating to selling auto parts.

"When we talk about facilities and, if I have to give my own example, growing up, I didn't bowl on proper cricket pitches," he points out. "We used to sweep a plain piece of land, fix stumps and start bowling. We didn't get any bounce or movement. So, to get a batsman out, we had to try that much harder, maintain discipline and intensity for longer periods of time. That helps you get your basics right and it becomes easier when you start bowling on turf wickets. I am not saying it's a cakewalk, but you have an idea what to do in slightly better conditions for bowling."

While Vinay had a decent international career, he is one of the finest when it comes to domestic cricket. He finished his career with 504 first-class wickets, besides 225 List A and 194 T20 scalps. The biggest compliment he has received, he reveals, was when the umpires told him they were at their attentive best when he bowled his first few overs with the new ball because he invariably got wickets - either bowled or LBW.

That accuracy, Vinay feels, can come only when you put in those hard yards, which he credits to the background he comes from.

Here's a trivia: Vinay owns the record of picking up a wicket or more in the first over on 35 occasions in domestic cricket.

Tamil Nadu pacer Natarajan's rise to fame is even more inspiring. The left-arm pacer hails from a village called Chinnappampatti, where life is an everyday struggle. As a boy, Natarajan took odd jobs like working at brick kilns, steel plants and construction sites to help his family make ends meet. Is that just a coincidence?

What about Shami, who had to shift base from his village Sahaspur in UP to Moradabad and then to Kolkata? Or Munaf Patel who emerged from Ikhar, a backward village in Gujarat?

There's an interesting parallel observed in the book Crickonomics, penned by Stefen Szymanski and Tim Wigmore, which highlights a similar situation in England from the early 1800s to the late 1960s. Citing the suggestion of Fred Spofforth, a former Australian fast bowler settled in England, the authors find that in the battle between Gentlemen (leisured class) and Players (working class), the latter was a superior side because of a few factors. The assessment was based on facts, but the manual labour, Spofforth says, would have built muscle and endurance apart from practicing on bad pitches that would have enhanced one's skills.

"A professional would often practice on bad pitches where probably the faster he bowls, the greater the success," reasons Spofforth, who goes on to say, "The real reason why sons of gentlemen don't succeed as bowlers is that they don't do the necessary work when young... The young collegian playing on really first-class pitches finds the batting too good and therefore prefers to pay more attention to the latter as he gets more fun out of it and it is not irksome..."

Staying with batting, Vinay makes an interesting point. "Why do you think some bowlers go on to become handy batsmen a few years into their careers? Because they have that access to the equipment, facilities and the right advice and coaching to improve their batting skills," reasons Vinay, who finished with 3,301 first-class runs, including two hundreds.

Though big cities have produced a few quality fast bowlers - just as small places have rolled out quality batsmen - it's a fact that the socio-economic conditions are unique to these two sets of cricketers.

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(Published 03 September 2022, 15:09 IST)

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