At the JSCA Stadium nets on Friday, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav had short stints, while Ishant Sharma decided to sit out. The Indian team management puts a big emphasis on workload management and recovery of their fast bowlers these days and so, it was an optional training session.
The third Test against South Africa commences here on Saturday and once again India are likely to go with a three-pronged pace attack in Shami, Umesh and Ishant. The pitch will help the fast bowlers initially, but so resourceful is the current crop of Indian quicks that they no longer rely on helpful conditions to make an impact. The ongoing series, which the hosts lead 2-0, has provided further proof of that.
The first two Tests weren’t played on dust bowls. Far from it. The Vizag pitch was good for batting. The deck in Pune had good bounce and also offered movement, at least on the first day. Kagiso Rabada made early inroads for the Saffers as well, but barely had any support from the other end.
When South Africa batted in Pune, Umesh struck second ball, accounting for Aiden Markram. He removed Dean Elgar a couple of overs later with a delivery that straightened. Umesh was playing his first Test after a gap of 10 months. He wasn’t in the original squad for this Test series and came in as Jasprit Bumrah’s replacement when the latter was ruled out with a minor stress fracture in his lower back.
Bumrah carries an x-factor. He is the spearhead of this Indian fast bowling group. When India toured West Indies in August-September, he was so impressive that the great Andy Roberts went to the extent of saying that Bumrah would have sat comfortably in the company of the fearsome West Indies fast bowlers of the 1970s and early ‘80s. In fact, Roberts even said Bumrah’s unorthodoxy was the only missing piece in the famed Caribbean quartet which included Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall.
Missing Bumrah for the home series against South Africa presented a challenge to the Indian pace bowling trio – Shami, Ishant and Umesh. All of them have risen to the occasion. Shami took a five-for in the second innings in Vizag to help India win the match. Umesh, on his Test comeback, had a six-wicket match haul in Pune, as the hosts secured an innings victory. Ishant, too, has contributed well whenever he was given a bowl. The three fast bowlers combined so far have taken 16 South African wickets in two Tests. In home conditions, the two spinners – Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – lead the chart as expected with 24 wickets between them. But the pacers have softened up the South African batting, making the job easier for the spinners.
Former South Africa pacer Fanie de Villiers admitted that he didn’t expect India’s fast bowling to be this good without Bumrah. He lauded Virat Kohli for his attacking mindset that encouraged his quicks to go flat out irrespective of the conditions. But according to de Villiers, the real credit goes to the backroom staff – the biomechanics expert and the strength and endurance coach.
“The system has brought in stronger Indian fast bowlers. Am talking about muscle endurance... It’s wonderful to see that you guys have started eyeing into making your fast bowlers strong, who in the process are gaining that 5 kilometres an hour extra (pace). That’s what it’s all about. If you don’t do that, then obviously you can’t generate the right pace,” de Villiers told The Indian Express.
The 55-year-old ex-seamer from Transvaal, with 180 international scalps, was widely regarded as one of the canniest in the business during his time. He is happy that “at long last” India has embraced the “ideology” of fast bowling.
“With the vast numbers you (India) have, the vast interest in the game, you should be producing more fast bowlers than we do. Of course, it’s possible and especially with reverse swing... The Indian condition(s) is no excuse, because Pakistan have developed fast bowlers who can bowl at pace. India has followed suit now and have taken their fast bowling to the next level. Why it didn’t happen before I don’t know,” de Villiers said.
For India, it was important to mobilise the system that gave their fast bowlers the licence to bowl quick. The conservatism about line and length at the expense of pace had chained the Indian fast bowling for far too long.
“A captain can change the mindset, but somebody behind the scenes have done the job to make the fast bowlers stronger – the biomechanics expert, the support staff who looks after strength and endurance. Those guys deserve credit. A fast bowler’s muscle endurance develops there,” de Villiers observed.
Back in 1992-93, when India toured South Africa for the first time, they were battered by Allan Donald and company. An inexperienced Javagal Srinath was the fastest — in the range of 140kph — that India could offer in response. Nearly three decades down the line, India have three 140kph-plus fast bowlers to play with, while the Proteas’ tenuous link to world-class fast bowling, after Dale Steyn’s Test retirement, is restricted to Rabada only. The tables have turned.