In the mid 1970’s, a familiar but intimidating chant (especially for visiting English teams) used to go around Australian Test cricket venues. “Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust, if Thomson doesn’t get ya, Lillee must.”
The chant was to highlight the fearsome skills of Australian pace pair, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
If Indian cricket fans, so used to salivating over batting feats, while playing at home, choose to borrow that phrase, they might as well sing, “Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust, if Shami does not get you, Umesh must” and also add the names of Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah (when fit) and Bhuvneshwar Kumar to the list.
Since January 2015, the time that Virat Kohli took over as India’s Test captain, the pacers, Shami, Ishant, Umesh, Bumrah and Kumar have picked up 428 wickets in 52 Tests at a strike rate of 51.51. Sixteen five-fors have been registered at an astonishing average of 25.54. At home, the pacers have taken 152 scalps in 26 Tests, away, in more helpful conditions, they have picked up 276 wickets in 26 Tests with 13 five-fors.
In India’s 3-0 whitewash of South Africa, Shami and Umesh bowled with pace and potency even on unresponsive tracks and have not made the team feel the absence of the brilliant Bumrah.
“They understand their game plans. The energy has been very good. There is an intent and self-belief that they can pick up wickets,” observed former South African skipper Shaun Pollock during his analysis on Cricbuzz. His former colleague and former captain, Graeme Smith alluded to it in his post-match show on the official broadcaster. “South Africa expected a lot of spin, but were outdone by pace. The areas that Umesh and Shami bowled in were brilliant. They looked to hit the stumps and make the batsmen play,” Smith commented and praised Kohli for the way he rotated his bowlers.
With the way the pacers have been bowling for the last two years, is it fair to say then that this is the greatest Indian pace attack?
Former Indian left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra sees a problem with that. “Yes, it is a very skillful pace attack, but that does not mean the earlier guys were not good. Now, because of improved fitness, exposure to IPL and India ‘A’ cricket, players have improved. There is competition and players have been forced to raise the bar. We must remember that bowlers like Kapil Dev, Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath took a lot of wickets on Indian pitches and bowled well overseas, too. Let us not make this only about numbers,” Nehra pleads.
As captain, Kohli always loved pace. Even when he captains RCB in the IPL, he prefers speedsters and his endorsement of the speedy Navdeep Saini is a testament to that.
“It is a myth that fast bowlers cannot bowl well in India. The wickets help reverse swing and the SG ball can be very helpful,” says Nehra. He reckons India have been fortunate that a pool of talented pacers are playing at the same time and all are fit and experienced, a ‘luxury’ earlier captains did not have. Being fast through the air, they also take the surface out of the equation.
In the 24 Tests that Kohli has captained in India, the pace attack has taken 137 wickets at an average of 27.44 and a strike rate of 57.2. From November 2017, a time when yoyo tests, carb-free diets and improved fitness became part of every Indian cricketer’s vocabulary, pacers have picked up 69 wickets in eight Tests at 20.64 and a strike rate of 39.30.
Shami, speaking after the Ranchi Test mentioned the celebrated ‘F’word. “Fitness has become a revolution in this side. The team management also gives us the confidence and the fields we want,” he said.
Former all-rounder Irfan Pathan, while analysing the bowling performance, on TV, said, “Kohli really takes care of his fast bowlers. He gives them their space, their fields. Only when something does not work, he steps in.”
The skipper seems to be doing the off the field stuff well too, like posing for selfies with his pacers at airports and calling them lean and mean machines and complimenting them and their toned physiques on social media.
Pakistan tearaway Shoaib Akhtar too talked about the impact Kohli has on his pacers. “Kohli enjoys captaincy and gives full freedom to his bowlers,” he analysed on his You-Tube show.
In the South Africa series, Indian seamers accounted for 26 of the 60 wickets to have fallen and struck every 35 balls. Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander came to India with greater pedigree, but the South African pacers picked up just 10 wickets at 70.20 and an unflattering strike rate of 131.20. At a recent event in Mumbai, West Indies great Brian Lara had commented that the Indian pace attack reminded him of the great West Indies bowling attack of yore.
That, indeed, is high compliment.