South Asia's cricket rivalry: Is the Indian pace battery a notch-up on Pakistan's feared pace attack of the last century?

The difficulty level the current Indian pacers had to overcome to achieve consistency and success in top-flight international cricket is substantially higher than what their counterparts from Pakistan had to surmount decades back, writes Sirshendu Panth for South Asia Monitor

Sirshendu Panth Sep 09, 2021
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India-Pakistan cricket rivalry

For long revered for the guiles of its legendary spinners, India is now creating waves in the cricketing world because of the "highly skilled" Indian pace battery. The likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and the newcomers Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur have been bowling with clinical precision, extracting searing pace, and above all, exhibiting enviable control over swing to skittle out the opponent batsmen.
   
A clear indication of the superiority of the current crop of Indian pacers can be had from two small bits of statistics. Though India started playing Test cricket in 1932-33, it took the country’s pacers 85 years to grab all 20 wickets in a match. That feat was achieved in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2018. After that, during the current tour to England, the Indian seamers have taken all 20 wickets at Trent Bridge and 19 at Lords (with one batsman run out).

In the four Tests of the current series, the pacers have picked up 61 of the 70 English wickets.  

The way the Indian pace battery ran through the English batting lineup on day five of the just-concluded Oval Test, that the tourists won by 197 runs, has provoked the question as to whether it is one of the finest fast bowling attacks of all times.

“I respect this India pace attack immensely, It is highly skilled. They have got pace. They are all slightly different with different angles, actions. It still flabbergasts me that with five steps, Bumrah can bowl at 90 miles an hour. It is not great to face as a batsman, but as an opposition player, you can give them huge respect. Shami, I have been immensely impressed - his skill level, his accuracy.  It has been tough for batsmen on both sides,” English pacer Mark Wood said in a virtual interaction.

With India and Pakistan being arch-rivals of the subcontinent, cricket pundits have been also been debating if the current Indian speed merchants are better than their Pakistan counterparts in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s.

Praise from across the border

Former Pakistan cricket captain Ramiz Raja has little hesitation in stating: “There’s no better bowling attack than India’s at the moment in Test cricket”.

He, however, did not think that the Indian pace attack was the all-time best, reminding about the quality fast bowlers in the Australian line-ups, the West Indies’ fearsome pacer battery of Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, and Joel Garner and Pakistan’s pace arsenal of the 1990s (when the two W’s Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis became terrors for batsmen the world over).

According to Raja, the present Indian pace attack was the fourth all-time best.

Another former Pakistan skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq was also recently profuse in his praise of the Indian quicks, who ‘have genuine fast bowlers’ aggression”. “I have never seen such an Indian fast bowling line-up,” he was candid.

Pakistan’s reverse swing exponents

A major reason that the present bunch of Indian pacers is being compared to the vintage Pakistani fast bowlers of the previous century lies in their commonality – the proficiency in reverse swing with the old ball.

In the 1970s, two tall Pakistani fast bowlers, Sarfraz Nawaz and Sikander Bakht, developed the art of reverse swing, but the name was given much later as cricketing experts then had no idea of the term, and limited themselves to lauding the duo’s uncanny ability to make the old ball swing.

Alongside Sarfraz and Bakht, the tall and handsome Pashtun Imran Khan, now the Pakistan Prime Minister, formed the troika of pacers for the national side in the later 70s and early 80s. He also learned to reverse swing.

Around the mid-1980s, the talismanic Wasim Akram, a left-arm fast bowler, made his international debut. Towards the end of the decade came Waqar Younis. Mentored by then captain Imran Khan, the duo picked up reverse swinging skills, which served Pakistan well till the early years of the 2000s.  

Hailed as the “Sultan of Swing”, Akram was a complete pace bowler. Younis, also a master of swing, bowled big and late inswingers and lethal yorkers at high speed. After Imran Khan’s retirement post Pakistan's triumph in the 1992 World Cup, the two W’s paired up successfully through the 1990s.

The Indian pace story

In contrast, till the arrival of pacer allrounder Kapil Dev on the big stage during the 1978-79 Pakistan trip, India at times even went with one regular seamer (with Sunil Gavaskar partnering him for one over or so), whose sole job was to remove the polish of the new ball for a few overs before the famed spinning quartet of B. S. Bedi, B. S. Chandrasekhar, E.A. S. Prasanna or S. Venkataraghavan could take over.

While Kapil Dev, powered by his disciplined line and length and deadly outswingers, remained the numero uno strike bowler through the 1980s, delivering long spells in away engagements as also on lifeless domestic tracks, he got intermittent support from the likes of Manoj Prabhakar and Chetan Sharma.

At the turn of the century arrived Zaheer Khan (the second most successful Indian pacer after Kapil Dev), a great connoisseur of reverse swing and served the Indian team with great efficiency till the middle of the last decade.

Coming to the present speed merchants, 27-year old Bumrah has of late been the centerpiece of the attack, becoming the fastest Indian pacer to take 100 wickets, in 24 Test matches, one less than Kapil.

Bumrah’s unorthodox action, in-swingers and the surprise straighter ones have put batsmen in all sorts of trouble, with the British going into superlatives in describing his bowling "master class" in the fourth Test against England. 

The gangling Ishant Sharma, 32, a veteran of over 100 Test matches, bowls sharp deliveries that at times cuts in, reverses and bounces to make things difficult for the rival batsmen.

Mohammed Shami’s ability to find the right line and length and, and get the ball to reverse, has brought him wickets regularly, making him an asset in the attack.

Strong and fit, Mohammed Siraj, a new recruit in the pace attack, oozes energy and his consistency leaves batsmen frustrated.

The veteran Umesh Yadav’s swinging deliveries can be lethal. He has been a consistent exponent of reverse swing.  

Shardul Thakur, a late bloomer, has shown much promise with his quality out-swingers, while the wily and experienced Bhuvneshwar Kumar is known to have the ball hoop around corners with the new ball. 

Comparison with Pakistani bowlers

Any attempt to compare the current bunch of Indian pacers with the great Pakistani quicks of the previous century is bound to draw howls of protests from the traditionalists, who are likely to come up with the caveat that teams of different eras cannot and should not be compared. The objective situations are different, and the game has undergone a lot of transformation.

While both the current Indian pacers and the Pakistani fast bowlers of yore did get a lot of success on foreign pitches – a standard yardstick to measure the effectiveness of a side – it is true that the technological innovations and the format changes have managed to reduce the fear factor in the batsmen.

Cricket is now being played in an age where every action of a player is analyzed for hours, days, weeks and months from various angles and motions by experts using high-level digital technology to pinpoint his shortcomings. To succeed and maintain a consistency level before such scrutiny requires innovativeness and the ability to produce a wide range of variations.  

Again, the profusion of short formats like twenty20 has made the game more pro-batsmen with allowances like the use of heavier bats.  From the safety point of view too, playing a fast bowler has become easier for batsmen because of the multiple gears at their disposal. It would be pertinent to mention here, that Gavaskar – one of the greatest batsmen the game has seen – took on the fiercest of fast bowlers on green tops in West Indies, Australia and Pakistan, wearing (that too late in his career) only a skull cap. This is something unthinkable nowadays.

Without taking any definitive position, it would not be out of context to point out that the difficulty level the current Indian pacers had to overcome to achieve consistency and success in top-flight international cricket is substantially higher than what their counterparts from Pakistan had to surmount decades back. 

(The writer is Editor, South Asia Monitor and a former sports writer. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at s.panth@spsindia.in)