Cricket: India Faster Than Ever

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav have broken more than just speed barriers

VISUALISE THIS. A splendid sun spilling out of a smokey sky, spilling on to a cricket ground. Broad concrete stands seating men, women and children in different stages of rapture and perspiration, their foreheads wrapped in crescent- moon shaped paper caps. Ugly hoardings in radioactive colours—of chewing tobacco, cement mix, cough syrup and engine oil. Dusty outfield. Brown infield. Biscuit crumb pitch. White uniforms of fielders smeared with clay. Face towels hanging by tailbones. The conspiring lot packed around their prey, a Caucasian batsman, like cunning dholes.

This, of course, is a scene from a Test match in India. And because the series against England is currently underway, perhaps Rajkot. Or Visakhapatnam. Maybe Mohali. And because of the fielding side, India, is described to be in a position of control, you have, in your mind’s eye, already seen the spinners in action, haven’t you? Perhaps Ravichandran Ashwin. Or Ravindra Jadeja. Maybe Jayant Yadav.

Now, let’s zoom in and allow me to describe the state of play. And if you will, visualise this. A fast bowler at the top of his mark. The inner fold of his trousers stained a rich pink. Beady eyes. Knotted brows. Facial hair. A prowling run up. A catapulting release. A photogenic seam that behaves itself and stays upright for zoom-in cameras and consequent analyses. A red ball swinging in the air, cutting off the pitch. This way and that. Punching, rather audibly, into the wicketkeeper’s gloves. His mittens clasped with the ball in the triangle made by thumbs and indexes, over his right earlobe. The slip cordon nodding in delight. The ‘woooof!’ from the crowd. Twenty thousand pairs of pupils shifting gaze towards the large screen to know the delivery’s velocity. Twenty thousand breaking smiles when the figure ‘146 kmph’ is thrown up. Twenty thousand voices drumming up the following effort, in loop, 145-plus ball after ball, 145-plus over after over, 145-plus true quick after true quick.

This too, believe it or not, is a scene from a Test match in India— in 2016. Witnessed through the New Zealand series. Now being witnessed by England. In Rajkot. In Visakhapatnam. In Mohali. But Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav have broken more than just speed barriers. They have broken egos (James Anderson’s and Stuart Broad’s), broken stumps (Alastair Cook’s), broken helmets (Chris Woakes’) and broken bones (Haseeb Hameed’s). They have also broken glass ceilings.

For the first time in the Test badge’s 84-year history, India can boast of two genuine quicks bowling in rotation, in partnership, consistently over 90 mph. In India, lest we forget, where tracks are tailored to assist either spinners or batsmen. Yet, here they are, Shami and Yadav. Burning up the speed guns. Burning away the conventions. Session after session, day after day, match after match. Virat Kohli, captain of the Test team and a man who faces these quicks regularly in the nets, is in visible awe.

“Shami and Umesh bowl their heart out. On these kind of pitches, to rush in every ball, consistently bowl above 145 kmph and bounce people out speaks a lot of their character,” Kohli, conceding just how grateful he is to inherit not one but two fast bowlers at their prime, said at the end of the Mohali Test. “I cannot wait to see what they do on pitches outside this country, where they will get a little assistance from pace-friendly wickets.”

Kohli, you would presume, knows what he is talking about if he is rubbing his palms in anticipation. Not just because he has these two soldiers in his ranks, but also because he too, as a 90s child, had to silently suffer the ignominy of India not producing a single tearaway. Not one, while neighbours Pakistan manufactured them by the proverbial dozen. In his book Pundits from Pakistan, author Rahul Bhattacharya was told just why that was by a Pakistani great and serial tormentor of Indian batting line-ups in the 90s, Aaqib Javed.

“That aggression, you get that from beef. It’s not that you need to have beef only from cow. Here we use a lot of buffalo meat also. I believe that the red meat of these animals promotes aggression,” said Javed. “Your Srinath, his speed was 90 miles but he never created terror. His body language was so soft. My speed was less than his but the pressure I could exert because of my body language was much more.”

Soft, is putting it mildly. Javagal Srinath once famously bounced Ricky Ponting on the Test tour of Australia in 2000. The ball clipped the batsman on the underside of his grille. What happened next is the stuff of folklore. Srinath, quite possibly the nicest man to spearhead an attack, tiptoed up to Ponting and apologised with sincerity—spread hands, tilting head. Ponting, doubled down in pain at this point, responded with a volley of expletives and in no uncertain terms asked the bowler to get out of his face. So Srinath did.

At his fittest, a fleeting peak in his youth surrounded by numerous injury troughs, Srinath was as fast as it got in Indian cricket. But pace alone, as the wizard Wasim Akram will tell you, is not enough. It’s what you couple that pace with. The cream of Pakistan’s pace battery in every era since the 90s have combined their speed with reverse swing (the ability to make an old ball drift towards the shinier side, the opposite of conventional swing). Srinath used his pace to fuel furious, inconsistent lengths. Too short, too often. By the time he learnt to pitch the ball up and give it enough air to play with variations, he was a whole lot older. And a whole lot slower.

There are cautionary tales. And then there is Irfan Pathan. When Pathan first exploded on to the big stage in Australia as a teenager back in 2004, he was the whole package; terrific pace, terrific swing, terrific seam and, to make him a real teen sensation, terrific hair—the very embodiment of the millennial cricket fan’s dream. They say success has many fathers (read coaches) and they also say that Pathan tried to obey all of them. The pace left him first. Then the swing. Then the seam. Then the Indian team. Then the fathers. Then, perhaps the most tragic of all, his hair.

Several bowlers have since drum-rolled their national team arrival with the tag of ‘fastest in the land’, bestowed upon them by Dennis Lillee (the original guru) and wannabe Dennis Lillees at various pace foundations that sprouted around the country in the last decade. Munaf Patel, VRV Singh, Jaydev Unadkat. The hype died before many of their careers did, but it was hard to fool us, the fans.

So we resigned to the ways of this universe and sighed as Praveen Kumar (a bowler of immense skill with no pace) led our bowling attack on the tour of England in 2011. A year later, at the fast bowling Vatican, the WACA in Perth, Vinay Kumar was given a chance. He was promptly tonked for a six (some would say he was treated like a spinner) by a quick-footed David Warner in his very first Test over and never played the format again. Two years on, in England again, the bowling line-up featured Stuart Binny as India’s first change bowler. Speaking to ESPN Cricinfo on that tour, Akram could barely contain his chuckle.

“I played against West Indies (in the 80s) and their back-up bowler was Winston Benjamin, who bowled at 145 kmph. India have Stuart Binny,” Akram said. “How come I never got Stuart Binny when I was batting?”

Then, just when no one was looking, or when we were focused on the Binnys of this land, India unearthed (like Uruk-hais from the depths of Isengard, nascent yet somehow fully formed) two genuine, fearsome quicks. Not one, but two. If the prospect of that doesn’t get you giddy, nothing will.

IN HIS SECOND over of the Vizag Test, Shami polished the shiny new ball by his thigh, wiped a sleeve over his forehead and ran in with the enthusiasm of a man breaking prison—spine upright, neck occasionally scanning ghouls and elbows thrashing by his ribs. He pitched his release just short of Cook’s good length, at 90 mph, and the ball seamed safely away from the batsman’s off stump. Shami bowled the same line and same length off the following delivery, again at 90 mph, and this time Cook exaggerated his leave—shoulders up, bat over his helmet.

If Shami laughed his way through his run up before delivering the third ball, he concealed the smirk well, for he ran in knowing his set-up was complete. But he still had to execute his sleight of hand. This time the ball pitched just a little fuller and a little straighter. And it seamed the other way, towards Cook’s off stump. By the time the England captain—one of only four visiting batsmen to notch over 1,000 runs in India, no less—prodded his bat down the inner line, the ball had snapped the stump neatly in two. One half remained firmly rooted to the ground, the other picked up by Ajinkya Rahane at gully. It’s hard to tell what the exact speed of the ball was, as even the broadcasters, perhaps stunned by the moment, forgot to display the reading on our television screens. The crowd, Kohli, the players in the celebratory huddle, were caught in an emotion somewhere between bewilderment and pure joy. Only Shami seemed calm. This, after all, was what he was born to do.

In a series better remembered for Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement in November 2013, Shami made his Test debut. In front of his home fans at the Eden Gardens, the Bengal pacer took four wickets in the first innings and five in the second. Shami had nine wickets to show for his effort; Tendulkar had 10 runs. Chants of “Sachin, Sachin” swiftly turned to ‘Shami, Shami” as the bowler, bowling with the old ball and detonating the stumps at will, showed extreme skill in perhaps what was the best exhibition of reverse swing by an Indian bowler in Indian conditions.

“I must be dreaming, I should pinch myself,” he said in Bengali that day. The dream ended a little over a year later, when Shami’s left knee gave way after a three-month long tour of Australia that included a Test series, a one-day series, a warm-up series to the World Cup and the World Cup itself.

The busted knee put him out of action for a year-and-a-half— a period longer than he had represented India. But when he returned, during India’s tour of the West Indies earlier this year, Shami did what no other Indian pacer had before—return stronger than he was before the injury. “He has been really precise with his training to get fitter than ever, because one leg was weaker than the other so he worked very hard to get that right again,” said Kohli. “He’s become more aware of what he is capable of as a Test bowler and he is running in harder than he was before. The results are there for all to see.”

If you go purely by numbers, then Shami is perhaps a failure in your eyes. Before his injury, he had taken four or more wickets in an innings on five occasions. Since his return, he has done that just once. And during the course of this long Indian summer, never at all. But Kohli, again, is the first to back his spearhead. And in his explanation he proves that he is a better captain than most critics give him credit for.

“Shami and Umesh, their role is different,” Kohli said. “It’s great to have them bowl in short bursts and them bowl with serious pace. And I’m happy that they are not getting desperate for wickets—four-fors, five-fors. Their role is to come in and give us crucial breakthroughs and they have been doing it. They are also combining really well with spinners, who take a majority of the wickets, and that works well for Indian cricket.”

Like Shami, Yadav too doesn’t have many five-fors to show for his efforts—just one in half a decade of Test cricket. But aggression, the emotion Kohli looks for in a fast bowler, Yadav has plenty of. In 2010, long before he was in contention for a Test spot, he felled Sachin Tendulkar with a bouncer in a practice net in Cape Town. It made national news. And in this Test match, he got a ball to rear up at Hameed and cracked his little finger.

But the moment that truly captured the team’s new appetite for pace unfolded in the second innings of this Mohali Test. It was when Hameed, with a plaster around the glove of his left hand, walked out to bat late in the day. Immediately, Kohli tossed the ball to Shami to test his steel, his mettle. Hameed escaped the wrath with a single. But his batting partner, Chris Woakes, didn’t. The first ball he faced from Shami crashed into his protected head, the impact chopping down the helmet’s stem guard.

Few fast bowlers (not Srinath for certain) have had the venom, nerve or composure to follow a bouncer that hit the body with another short one. But Shami proved that this was no run-of-the- mill era of Indian cricket. He directed the next ball too at Woakes’ face and the fending bat looped an easy catch to the wicketkeeper. On the biscuit crumb pitch, the dholes surrounded Shami. And from the concrete stands above, men, women and children in paper hats bayed for more blood.