Circa 1997, the island nation of Sri Lanka were slowly asserting their identity as a cricketing nation under Ranatunga. It hadn’t been easy by any stretch of imagination- Murali was still viewed with heavy suspicion for his action. The World cup victory was grudgingly attributed to home conditions and refusal of 2 teams to play group stage matches in SL. Even Sri Lankan writers attested to this sentiment of providence, years later. They would falter in the longer format, the critics said. In fact, Sri Lanka itself had set a target of the year 2000 for mastering the test format. India, with a core team that whitewashed England and Sri Lanka a few years ago, stayed on for the test series after the 1997 Asia cup. For a young Indian fan tuning in, the noise music of the papare was disconcerting, to say the least (the hum of the vuvuzela would only make its presence in the popular sporting lexicon years later).
I was thrilled to see my hero, Sachin Tendulkar, make a century after a couple of formidable partnerships by the top order in India’s total of 537 for 8 declared. I had only recently discovered India’s favourite party trick in test cricket bowling- wait for the ball to become slightly old and introduce spin. Right on schedule, the debutante Nilesh Kulkarni snared Attapattu in his very first ball in test cricket marking the end of the second day at 39/1. Skipper Tendulkar, aged 24, made a statement of intent that his bowlers were going to attack Sri Lanka for three days– a battle cry not too different from a man anointed as his successor both in the middle order and choice of bat manufacturer. Alas, the dream debut for Kulkarni would end with the incessant run making of the Sri Lankan side; he would toil for 70 overs for just the one wicket where his more celebrated teammates amassed run tallies of 223 and 276 respectively. They had occupied the wicket for so long in their innings of 952 that many an opportunistic real estate hawk would have extorted rent. They inflicted the (dis)honour of the (then) highest ever partnership in test cricket which lasted over 2 full days- the very same record that they were a hapless party to against Martin Crowe & co.- en route to the highest total in test cricket. For me though, it was the personification of the all too familiar trope about the failings of the Indian bowling.
The recent series against a Sri Lankan team in transition was a happy ending for India and Virat Kohli. Kohli has quickly made his mark on the honours boards for Indian captains, the number of overseas victories. That he is tied for joint 5th place in only his second series illustrates the historical incompetence of Indian teams abroad. The wait for this victorious feeling overseas had been long overdue in the last few years. Since the turn of the millennium, (till the 2011 World cup) the Indian team used to turn up with a proverbial solitary souvenir stump every other series. In contrast, the preceding 4 years were particularly fallow, with just the one overseas victory before last year’s series, at Lord’s. No single player could have laid claim to the defining contribution at Lord’s; while the adjudicators might have awarded the man of the match to Ishant Sharma for a performance that was more 2005 post Ashes OBE than MCC honourary membership, other players like Pujara by biding time on the first morning’s surface (which was more Roger Federer’s centre court than a Lord’s strip), B Kumar with his 5 wicket haul & 50 and R Jadeja who conjured a performance akin to a blindfolded birthday child who got lucky by swinging at a Pinata , also played their part in the victory. The series victory against Sri Lanka would have soothed the wounds caused by a Dinesh Chandimal & Rangana Herath high octane heist earlier in the series but the overwhelming, lingering feeling over the last few years of touring has been one of disappointment which could be personified in a script straight out of Bollywood; the villain beats the hero to pulp, digs a hole in the ground, buries him under 20 feet of soil and ensures that the ground is levelled with heavy vehicles to ensure no escape- only for the hero to burst right through and give the villain a hiding that he would never forget thus paving the way for a happy ending (for the other team).
Sample some of the feats that the opposition has laid claim to on the unwitting Indian team’s watch in this millennium, when a good part of Cricinfo’s Indian all time eleven played together. Batting superstardom? Check- second ever triple hundred in the second innings by Brendon McCullum at Wellington. McCullum may have got plenty of admirers for his plucky approach during the World Cup campaign but even the most vociferous Kiwi fan would admit his innings was not in the same league as Hanif Mohammad’s, either in its premise or in its mythology. Letting the side off the hook? Check- getting more than half the side out for 39 (with a second ever hattrick in the very first over), getting sucker punched by a hundred from the no. 8 butter fingered keeper batsman and then proceeding to lose the match. Why, the team has enough instances to feature in a best- of collection ranging from 2011 to the recent 2014 vintage at Lord’s, Trent Bridge, Melbourne, Trent Bridge and Manchester. Collapsing while chasing a low score? You could choose from a bungle at Barbados or a recent galling game from Galle. Shakespeare may say otherwise, but for a fan love-stricken with the Indian team in the 90s, a Rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.
Columnists have been split on whether the batsmen are to be blamed or the bowlers for India’s recent poor shows. Sharda Ugra makes interesting points for both the batting and the bowling. Either way, it is only fair to say that the Indian team has rarely been good at test cricket, more so, away from home. The recent troubles of away teams have been well documented and some attribute it to the relentless schedule but this still does not explain how India’s record is poor compared to other sides who have comparable schedules. Considering that test cricket has produced a result two out of every three matches (since this deals with double counting, an average team clocks a win, a loss and a draw every 3 test match series) from the beginning of time, India’s position in the overall table of test wins ordered by percentage of test wins does not make for pretty viewing (for the purpose of this article, a cut-off date of 1 May 2016 has been considered as it is the natural temporal demarcation between the 2015-16 & 2016 test seasons). It jostles for space near the foot of the table alongside countries who have a population comparable to some of its metropolitan cities (not necessarily its most crowded ones). Even accounting for home comforts does not alleviate this anomaly which is incommensurate with its size of talent pool, market potential of the game and the bandwidth given to it with respect to other sports. India is firmly nestled in the seventh position for both home and away records (note that there are some inconsistencies with the way away records are noted by ICC, most notably in Pakistan’s case); changing the metric to W/L ratio only changes the situation slightly at home, with India leapfrogging to fifth place. The Indian fan too knows the “Tigers at home, lambs abroad” mentality. It would not be an exaggeration to state that an overseas series win against a good test team (read: Australia, England, South Africa) by dominating the opponents is probably on the bucket list of many Indians.
With this new place in the table, the Indian fan has to reconcile with an uncomfortable reality- a worrying tendency to draw games at home. The Indian fan craves for an overseas series win, more than anything else in the game. The writing on the wall is pretty clear- India have always been a mediocre side at Test cricket. It is only in the last two decades that the Indian team has had a decent overall record (resembling the world average) with W/L and Win% values north of 1 and 33% respectively (with the home numbers prettying up the overall picture). In fact, if the Twitter hashtag brigade would have existed a couple of decades ago, there would have been plenty of snark about India’s hospitality watermarked with the Incredible India campaign for a visiting batsman, opinion polls about which opposition player would revive his career for another couple of years and joke forwards about how a cricket series was all about Tendulkar looking for a debutant to gift his wicket to.
Many teams, players and even on-lookers have struggled to come to grips with Test cricket due to its boundless nature. A new follower has to grapple with subtleties and changing dynamics of test cricket. The basic premise of most sports is “I score more than you within a framework of game rules” (for example, football, rugby, tennis, volleyball, field hockey, basketball, badminton etc.). Whereas, he/ she has to contend with two variables to be optimized in the case of a test cricket match- wickets and runs. Very rarely does the question of balls remaining arise in a test match. In comparision, the limited formats of cricket, T20 & ODI are similar in their mindset to other sports- in principle, a team can score more runs than the opposition team, fail to take a single wicket and still win the match, thus subscribing to the “I score more than you” logic. A new constraint of overs/ deliveries is present no doubt, but it can be a proxy for time left on the clock in the case of other sports.
The devaluation of bowlers is due to the bounded nature of limited overs cricket and therein lies the fundamental difference in formats; a test team can score mountains of runs and still fail to win a match but a limited overs side will almost certainly win a match due to scoreboard pressure. In limited overs, the total number of matches played and won (ignoring ties and no results as they are relatively rare) are enough to speak about the strength of a side. Whereas, in test cricket, a third variable- the number of stalemates/ draws- also have to be taken into consideration (ignoring tied matches as they are extremely rare). In other words, in T20s & ODIs, W/L & Win% are interchangeable but in test matches both metrics are needed to conclude about the performance of a side. One can concoct a variety of doctored situations where either metric look good but only a truly great side would show strong numbers in both these benchmarks. Therefore, the test match is the only format which treats its protagonists and their statistics with due respect. A case in point is that while the records of man of the match in ODIs are dominated by batsmen, a better representation for the bowlers can be seen in the test arena (the MoM awards are a recent phenomenon no doubt, but it still points to the essential difference between formats).
A strange dichotomy exists between the way batting and bowling performances prop up numbers in victories, defeats and draws (adding ties to the draw category) in test matches. It would follow from the backdrop of a test match that batsmen are, therefore, necessary but not sufficient for a victory. The pride of the place of a test team should be granted to a bowler, which shows up in test statistics as well. From the above figures, an unambiguous statement can be made about the importance of a good bowling attack for test victories- a good batting performance does not guarantee victory but a good bowling performance surely wins test matches. Of course, sweeping generalizations cannot be applied without examining the distribution of data, but overall trends can certainly be spotted. And, India’s overall batting performance has been better than the world average but its bowling performance has been found wanting with sub- par statistics in both the bowling average and wickets/ test metrics. Once again, the importance of bowling cannot be reiterated enough; a team could score 2000 runs for the loss of 3 wickets in 2 days but unless it finds a way to take 20 wickets, it will not win the match. The recent Delhi test only illustrates this tenet all too well. Conversely, poor batting surely loses a match but poor bowling can be bailed out by good batting to eke out a draw, as seen in successful blockades effected by the same South African team at Adelaide and Colombo. The key metric for a bowling attack is the wickets/ match (inclusive of run- outs). For a victorious team, this hovers around the 20 wickets/ match (A loss/ draw/ tie reduces the wickets per team to 13-15). This only shows that the effect of declarations is minimal on the overall statistics as the wickets captured by the bowling team per test match is only ~1% less than the theoretical maximum value for the winning team.
On the other hand, instead of the Wickets per match asymptotically approaching 10 in the case of an ODI victory, it is a full 11% off the maximum value (10) which shows the lesser influence of the bowler. This is not too surprising considering that an ODI match is often won without dismissing the opponent. As discussed earlier, there is no such workaround in a test match. For a team to do well in test cricket, its bowling must be most certainly good but its batting just has be good enough to prevent a collapse. In that sense, Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have certainly got the emphasis on the skill that wins test matches and the present coach, Anil Kumble, subscribes to this view as well. Simply put, if a test team had to choose between good bowling and batting, it will do better in test cricket if it puts its weight behind good bowling (this is not the case in the shorter formats). This is the reason why Pakistan has done better than India in test cricket despite having fewer notable batsmen. It is no surprise that all of the all-time champion teams have been built on the foundation of an almighty bowling attack.
The horde of the supporters of batsmen might point to the route to victory via a successful fourth innings chase and it is a legitimate counterpoint to test cricket being a bowler’s playground. Historically, it has also been easier to win batting last in a test match (W/L is more than 1). The distribution of 4th innings target (when split into 10 intervals) set is pretty flat as well in the 1474 matches that have gone to the 4th innings, which shows a very even spread of 4th innings targets. However, what the batsman brings to the table has to be put into perspective and weighed against what the bowler dishes out before deciding whether a batsman is merely the hors-d’oeuvre or the pièce de résistance.
If one were to make an educated guess regarding the likelihood of a test match result looking at the 4th innings target, he/ she would find that the historical trends with respect to Win% and Loss% follow conventional wisdom. The interpretation of a tie is more tricky as it is a result which is neither a win nor a loss for either team; fortunately, we have only 2 tied test matches. After much deliberation, it was clubbed with draws. As the target to get gets bigger, Win% continuously drops and conversely, the Loss% increases. The corresponding Draw%+ Tie% (which is practically the Draw% since there are only only 2 tied test matches) follows a different, albeit intuitive pattern. The likelihood of the draw increases with the target till 250 (at a rate rivalling the Loss%), plateaus between 250- 350 where it is the most likely result and then decreases when the target reaches stratospheric levels. There is also the presence of a statistical quirk in the 100-150 target range where the Loss% is higher than the Draw%! The old heads will no doubt point out the factor of complacency creeping in the chasing team. The loss that the Windies suffered in the 1983 World Cup final chasing a below- par score is representative of this scenario of missed opportunity, though in a different format. It is a loss which they rue even to this day. Overall, a win for the batting team is most likely result in sub- 200 target to get matches. A target of 200- 250 is a par score where all three results are equally probable (or if Ravi Shastri is to be believed, four). This is not too surprising considering a batsman averages 27 in the fourth innings. As the target goes north of 300, the chances of a victory are pretty minimal and beyond 400, they are merely anecdotal. On this evidence, there seems to exist a scoreboard pressure/ psychological barrier associated with the higher targets as the probability of mounting a comeback after the fall of each additional wicket reduces drastically. This is also seen with a loss being the most likely result in targets beyond 350 (some of them might be self-inflicted with teams batting for time and Virat Kohli was wary of the same in Adelaide), in spite the last few years being the best in terms of clocking 300 plus totals in the fourth innings.
The corresponding report card for Wickets captured by the bowling team shows similar trends. The odds of winning and losing decrease respectively with a decreasing collective wicket haul by the bowling team. The Draw%+Tie% too behaves in a similar manner with it increasing initially, stagnating in between before proceeding to drop. The individual values are different in the case of bowling and this is natural, given the importance of bowling well in a test match. Proceeding to superimpose the individual result percentages against the respective bowling/ batting statistic, a thumb rule of equivalence between batting and bowling can be obtained.
Overall, there are disparities in values of the two disciplines but trends can certainly be noted and commented upon.. Grabbing 20 wickets has granted victory to the bowling team in over 75% of the cases but the important point is that the likelihood of a stalemate (draw) is a measly 7%. Therefore, grabbing the maximum tally gives a team the maximum chance of victory; taking 20 wickets is akin to the chances of winning a match by chasing a total in the range 100 to 150. The historical trends for victory proceeds to reduce drastically with each successive step of a failing to nab the total. The Win % nearly progressively halves for each of the next two highest possible tallies. Just failing to grab a solitary wicket (from the maximum) reduces the odds from winning 3 in 4 matches to 2 in every 5. Grabbing these many wickets (18-19) is still a good way to avoid defeat though- the loss percent is still ~25%, which is equivalent to the odds of a loss chasing a target of 251-300. For a wicket tally lesser than this amount, the odds of victory vaporize. The likelihood of winning after taking less than 18 wickets is more improbable than winning while chasing a 350 plus target; the draw+tie percentage while chasing saturates and reduces as the chance of a loss mounts. And further worse down the road of bowling incompetence, firmly in Indian bowling territory (average of ~15 wickets taken/ test), the possibility of victory is equal to a straight in poker and the draws pile on in every second test.
Indian fans have been brought up on a steady diet of tales of valour & heroic deeds from yesteryear but the instances of successful 4th innings chases have only been sporadic. That only 6 out of the 19 highest successful 150+ Indian chases have been mounted in the previous century speaks volumes about the prowess of the Indian team in the fourth innings. Rather than pointing to the fact that the very few Indian players averaged higher than 35 (min 300 4th innings runs) before the turn of the millennium (case in point: Tendulkar averaged 30), the blame actually should be pointed in the direction of the bowling. While it is indeed shameful that India won only 6 out 81 matches chasing scores in excess of 150 in the 20th century, it is revealing that around three fourths of the target to achieve were in the 200+ range (out of 100 instances) where winning probabilities have been quite low (~11%), in general. With a record of having chased only 2 scores of 200+ out of 75 instances (~3%), it comes as no surprise that India are propped up by Zimbabwe at the bottom end of the table of 4th innings chase wins (ordered by Win% or W/L ratio) in the 19th & 20th century. Some would attribute this to bad batting and there is some element of truth in this accusation; but the data shows that 75% of the targets amassed against India were in the 200+ range (as opposed to 61% for the test arena in general). I would thus ascribe this due to poor bowling which pushed the target to levels where the odds for a win were pretty poor. The folklore surrounding the test matches of Port of Spain, The Oval and Adelaide have painted a pretty picture about India’s chasing prowess. Alas, they were only anecdotal outliers often quoted by a silver haired raconteur to a bewitched audience who kept the tradition of following India alive through its fallow years. Instead of clenching to these examples which were hard to come by, the template on how a test match should be won must be sought from Dunedin, where Prasanna and Wadekar played a significant hand in the latter half of the match a fashioned a fine victory.
Post 2000, when India piled on the wins abroad (relatively speaking), a superlative bowling performance has headlined every significant win- Prasad & Khan at Kandy, Kumble at Headingley, Agarkar at Adelaide, Sreesanth at Jo’burg, Khan at the jellybean match, and more recently, Ishant’s heroics at Lord’s and Sri Lanka. It is on the foundation of these individual bowling performances that India has leapfrogged to a mid-table fourth place on the basis of 4th innings chase wins and fifth best away record since the new millennium. Y2K may have put the Indian software industry on the map but it looks like it rubbed off on the Indian test team as well! Before 1999, India were languishing in 8th place in terms of percentage of test wins by chasing in the fourth innings. After the turn of the new millennium, India swapped places with West Indies in the pecking order and had the most improved (SA were second) 4th innings winning record, which is no mean feat. However, India has not been as lucky when it is bowling in the fourth innings though- it has won only 21 out of the 71 matches in the 21st century. Of the 71 matches where India have made the opposition bat in the 4th innings 51 times, only 20 of the targets have been in the 350+ zone where the Win% has been a high 74% for all teams. But India has only been able to muster ~60%, highlighting the inability of the Indian bowling to close out a match in the manner of a champion football team motoring along and accumulating a 1-0 grindstone away victory.
The primary reason (and some would say a natural by- product of poor bowling) for India not being able to dismiss the opposition team is the propensity of the opposition to pile on partnerships. A damning indictment of India’s thriftless bowling is the abundance of India’s presence in the buffet table of lower order partnerships. Historically, lower order wickets have been easy to dislodge (~23 runs/ wicket) vis- a- vis the top half (~40 runs/ wicket) for any bowling attack. Not for India’s though- India features 15 times on the list of the top 100 lower order partnerships; discount the minnows and this increases to 16. Digging deeper reveals the extent of this leitmotif; deeds of similar magnitude are peppered all over the opposition batting order. Considering only the top 8 cricketing nations, one can expect an average of ~12.5 instances for each nation in a top 100 list. For India, across the opposition batting order, the count is a 149 times in the top 100 batting partnerships (for each wicket against a top 8 bowling attack). An increase in occurrence of ~17% over the average value is too significant to be dismissed as a statistical oddity. Examining the top 100 partnerships against top 8 bowling attacks shows that India has particularly struggled to dislodge partnerships between the fourth and the eighth wicket. As a consequence, 30 of the top 200 scores amassed by batsmen below the no. 6 positions in the last 50 odd years (versus top 8 bowling attacks) are against India, which indicates that India is the most preferred bowling nation overall (the case of left handed batsmen feasting against Indian bowling has been well documented). These instances have piled on with such alarming regularity against the Indian team that a case can be made for the levelling of serious charges such as absenteeism and dereliction of duty.
One of the sure shot recipes to win a test match is to blow away the opposition in the first innings for a below par score. Of the top 200 instances of a bowling team bundling the batting team for a sub 156 score, only 17 victories and 23 draws have escaped the fate of a near certain (80% chance) loss. The discerning reader would note that this 80% chance of victory for the bowling team corresponds to the equivalent odds of victory having captured 20 opposition wickets or chasing a 100- 150 score in the 4th innings. If the recent South African collapses of 79 & 121 are ignored, India’s previous best position was bundling out the Lankans for 82 runs from 26 years ago. Overall, India occupies 16 positions (having suffered 20 times), gravitating towards the middle to bottom part of the overall table. It follows that in order to affect such a psychological blow, a menacing bowling unit must be mustered, or at the very least, a bowler who is on song on that particular day. The list of bowlers who have blown away opposition in the first innings of a test has a slightly more respectable headcount (15 out of the top 100) of the Indian bowlers. However, the Indians in the list are mainly spinners and barring two performances by Kapil Dev in Pakistan & Australia and one by Irfan Pathan against Zimbabwe, all have come at home. Even the familiarity of home conditions does not explain the void in the Indian bowling. Only 5 Indian bowlers (with completed careers) who’ve tallied 50 wickets at home have done it at less than 25 runs per wicket; on the back of a great home series against South Africa, both Ashwin and Jadeja have climbed the table only recently. The previous highest entry in a corresponding list involving bowlers from all over the world before the South Africa series was Bishan Bedi in the 48th place.
It is a familiar story in the case of wicket tallies at the end of a series (vs top 8 nations) as well. Only 8 Indians dot the top 100 (with only Bedi and Kapil Dev having done it in overseas conditions). On the other hand, the corresponding batting list is well represented with Gavaskar, & Sardesai (vs West Indies in 1971 & 1978), Kohli (vs Australia in 2014-15) and Dravid (vs England & Australia 2002 & 2003- 04) turning in series topping performances abroad. A consequence of not being able to maintain sustained high level performances means that an Indian bowler has never been in the midst of a crazy bowling streak. The ICC top 100 rankings list gives a rough indication of the players in form given their weighted performance based methods. Although, the top 100 ranking is quite redundant given that 10 test teams contribute only 110 players at any given instance. Hence, an indicator of overall excellence must be made based on an appearance in the top 20. One glance at the ICC rankings (even if their methods are form based methods) yielded only one Indian player in the top 16 before the South Africa series on 1 November 2015– considering most teams play only 4 bowlers nowadays, it only means that only one Indian bowler is amongst the top 4 in his bowling position (on an average). Jadeja & Ashwin have vastly improved their performances and broken into the top 10 only recently. But as the methodology notes, the rating points are indicative of the quality of performances. 900 level performances are supreme achievements with fewer players achieving it and sustaining it for long; 700 to 900 is a level indicative of the top 10. Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Dravid have breached the 890 barrier on the basis of their sustained performances at the highest level. For bowling though, it gets worse in the best ever table; Kapil Dev languishes in the 38th place of the best ever ranking points (877) as of 1 May 2016. Whichever way one looks at India’s bowling performances, the statistics are equally incriminating.
Now to address the giant Elephas maximus in the room- the Indian bowling. First, we’ve got to set some perspective by setting appropriate and relevant benchmarks and hence only records against top 8 nations will be taken into account. Of course, at different points of time in history South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been recipients of the wooden spoon but overall, these have been the strongest 8 teams in recent history. A player should have played at least 30 test matches against these nations and this would imply that he has played for his country for 3-4 years and has played against most opposition at home and on tour. If the bar for the all- time elite batsman is set as 5000 runs scored at 50 per dismissal against non- minnow competition, 23 of them make the cut with 3 predictable names from India- Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Dravid. The bar can be lowered to 45- 50 runs per dismissal to include another 21 top batsmen who were a notch below this elite list but were very good players in their time, nonetheless. From India, Sehwag, Laxman and Azhar are part of this second list. Apart from Sri Lanka and New Zealand (this looks to change with Kane Williamson), each top 8 country has produced a handful of batting superstars and mainstays.
For the sake of comparable symmetry, 24 bowlers make the cut if a comparable barometer of 200 non- minnow wickets at less than 26 runs per dismissal is similarly imposed. Similarly, if the bar is set lower between 26- 30 runs per dismissal to identifying the long serving good bowlers, 19 other bowlers join in. One could argue about the artificially imposed criteria and interpretations but they would turn out to be mere semantics in the face of an ineluctable fact- not even a single Indian bowler made it to the elite list. It is not a mere coincidence that countries with great periods of test cricket (Australia, South Africa, England and West Indies) have the highest headcount in the table. They certainly owe their records to the presence of elite bowlers and their supporting cast. How bad has the Indian bowling been historically? Fathom this- only 3 Indian bowlers have captured over 200 top 8 team wickets at a shade under 30 (Bedi, Kapil Dev and Chandra). Specifically, if the imposition of the bowling average of 26 is removed, the highest Indian bowler is Bishan Bedi in 33rd place who clocked in a shade over 28 runs per victim; only 4 other Indian bowlers with completed careers (at least 100 wickets) have breached the below 30 benchmark. The 30 benchmark is a significant considering that an average batsman scores ~30 per dismissal (a ~2 run differential with bowling average exists due to extras and run outs but the point remains, nonetheless). It is remarkable that West Indies managed to churn out so many virtuoso cricketers and great performances in spite of their small population. New Zealand have had only one world class cricketer in their history and it somewhat explains their lowly position in the Win% or W/L table. The fact that Sri Lanka has better test results (by Win% or W/L) with lesser number of longstanding high class personnel speaks volumes about the India’s mediocrity in the test arena in spite of having access to a much larger talent pool. The afterglow of the recent India South Africa series should not detract from the value of a bowling attack but instead enhance it; after all, the basis for the victory was pre- WW1 like bowling performances.
The overall Win% or W/L table along with the list of illustrious bowlers who have served the game reveals the secret of doing well in test cricket. Only 4 spinners dot the 24 member strong elite bowler list (Grimmett, Murali, Warne & Underwood). Even accounting for bowlers who have captured 200 top 8 team wickets at less than 30, only Benaud, Bedi, Chandra and Gibbs join this 43 member list and the overall headcount stands at less than 20%. Longtime followers of cricket will not find this quite surprising as the new ball favours the faster bowlers. Apart from a handful of examples, the faster bowlers almost always take the first strike with the new cherry. They get the first chance to dismiss the top order batsmen, who usually make bigger scores & partnerships, and cause a collapse. And as it has been seen earlier, grabbing the initiative in the first team bowling innings on a relatively fresh pitch is the exclusive preserve of the fast bowler. It doesn’t help that fast bowling, with its bravado elements of the fast run up, flailing action, high collar, open button, chest hair (perhaps we can discount this one in today’s metrosexual times) and other similar visceral & masculine sights of a searing bouncer or a toe crushing yorker, has been one of the most celebrated sights in the game. Why, the razzmatazz of the path breaking World Series Cricket was built on the machismo of fast bowling. The development of the helmet for batsmen exemplified the aura of fast bowling. The sight of a batsman hopping & swaying when faced with the mortal danger of a bouncer was often compared to other high speed high thrill sports such as Formula 1. Ever since the 1960s, the pitches and results have favoured fast bowling, with a rapid divergence between the spin & pace bowling averages and the overs bowled & wickets taken by spin. After two full decades of decadence, in the dark ages of the 1980s, Abdul Qadir, the highest wicket taker amongst spinners who averaged 32 with the ball, was canonized as the man who led the revival of the lost art of leg spin and later on inspired Shane Warne.
The sight of slightly rotund players ambling in from a short run up to deliver a slow delivery with no fatal end product may not be a sight to signal excitement but spinners have their own special place in cricket rather than just being an afterthought. Skimming through the illustrious list of highest wicket takers, a trendline of wickets per test match can be noticed. Spinners might capture wickets at a lesser strike rate but at the highest level, they more than make up for it by gobbling more wickets per match. For a premier fast bowler, Wickets per test hovers ~4 and for a tweaker, it is ~4.5. This makes Muralitharan’s achievements incredible; not only was he hamstrung by the fact that he was a spinner but he was also the lone Lankan face in the list of bowlers who got 200 wickets from the top 8 at less than 30 runs per wicket. He’s performed at an extraordinary level for most of his career, as evidenced by table topping metrics such as as wickets per test and bowling average. A bowler mostly benefits from the company of fellow good bowlers– this punctures Warne’s allegations that he got fewer wickets compared to Murali due to his fellow bowlers being good in the Warne vs Murali debate. Indian bowlers, with the exception of Kumble, have struggled to surmount this benchmark with respect to their fellow counterparts in the table. India’s most successful bowling trio is the Zaheer- Kumble- Bhajji trinity and it is no surprise that India’s most successful test team (relatively) drew from these protagonists. That a bowler more often than not prospers in the company of fellow good bowlers is also a factor that cannot be overlooked in India’s case; but waiting for a clutch of match winning bowlers when India struggles to string one in a generation is a catch- 22 situation. Reduced test match schedules and the commercial realities of 3 format cricket do not augur well for India’s wellbeing in tests. Whether Ashwin breaks the mould and performs well overseas is yet to be seen but several cricket pundits have bookmarked him as the man to perform well overseas for India. He will have a chance to move up the ladder and add to his tally in the recently announced 13 test match 2016-17 India home season.
India’s recent expanded home season aside, contemporary players have favoured commercial opportunities the shorter formats (read: IPL over country). It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, India were quite slow to take to the newfangled ODI format. They had won only one game in the first two World cups, that too against East Africa. One of the most significant early wins of India in ODIs was against the Windies in Berbice, a precursor to the tectonic 1983 World cup victory. Much of the narrative of the 1983 World Cup victory is built around self- awareness and belief surrounding the win against the best cricketing nation, albeit at a format which was viewed as a minor distraction to the test series that followed, back then. India still wasn’t taking the format too seriously in 1983 as a team of farmers & salesman beat India in a warm up game days before the World cup (one can only imagine the aftermath of a similar defeat today). The avenues, especially commercial, were opened once the team with the odds of winning the World cup at 66-1 won the tournament at Lord’s. Almost all of the narrative is centered on how improbable the victory was. With the subsequent comfortable victory in the 1985 World Series Cricket, ODIs would occupy the Indian imagination like never before. Victory brings in news fans and commerce; ask the fans of a mid-table English Premier League team about the fandom of Manchester United beyond the English Channel. Roy Keane’s disparaging remarks about the prawn sandwich brigade ring loud but they, along with TV broadcasting money, were the new commercial reality of the shorter formats in the 1990s. Whatever little chance that India had to build on the mythology of the bowling led 1983 World Cup victory went up in smoke with the bowlers becoming expendable in the shorter formats which are engulfing the very territory ceded by bowler friendly test cricket. The irony is perhaps not lost on the wistful Indian fan today that the position that cricket holds today in India was conjured by a duo of bowlers, that too of the innocuous military medium pace lineage, who took a grand total of 103 wickets in 108 test matches.
Much of the fandom of Indian cricket has been built around vivid imagery and folklore; Vinoo Mankad’s double act, Pataudi’s captaincy, Ajit Wadekar’s series triumph, that Port of Spain chase, Kapil’s Devils, the Champion of Champions, the fightback at Kolkata, bare chested Ganguly and an entire section that we shall call the tales of Tendulkar. The discriminating reader would deduce that the following was not based on a culture built on deference to the elders but more to do with the paucity of examples of sustained excellence in Indian cricket. Why, the 1990s kid in me would jauntily recall Tendulkar’s assault on Henry Olonga (known today for his exploits in commentary and activism for democracy) as one of the greatest sporting moments of the decade. Truth be told, with the benefit of hindsight, the total was sub- 200 on a Sharjah pitch, Olonga leaked a 6.10 runs an over in his career which the most expensive for the 1990s and his Cricinfo page does not have a section for notable performances. That we were regaled with the same self- congratulatory tales of the few heady times over and over again, even after the 1990s, with a history of 50+ years, speaks of a cricketing nation’s history riddled by chronic underachievement- especially in test cricket.
A large part of the blame should be shouldered by the oldest old boy club in Indian cricket, the Bombay cricketing establishment. Indian teams until the late 1980s were dominated by Bombay Ranji team. Indian cricket owes much of its early cognition to Bombay no doubt, but the inimical influence and the long shadow of the backslapping bonhomie that is Bombay cricket has been detrimental to India being a good test side. The biggest self-aggrandizing story in Indian domestic cricket is Bombay’s (now Mumbai) stranglehold on the trophy, having won it every other season in its 80 year old history, which is a commendable record even after discounting that the top 2 teams rarely squared off in a final due to the zonal system until the 1970s. Bombay may have given India its famed school of batsmanship but it is telling that for a city whose (cricketing and otherwise) spirit has been labelled relentless, resilient and never say die khadoos, the trophy was probably won on the basis of first innings lead a lot of the time. Of course, one can only play by the framework of the rules at the time, but it is no coincidence that Bombay bowlers are conspicuous by their absence either in the most career wickets or in the most wickets in a season records of the Ranji Trophy. The Mumbai bowlers who have captured the most test wickets for India are Zaheer Khan and Vinoo Mankad, both shoo- ins for the all-time Indian test eleven, but were imports from neighbouring Gujarati Ranji sides. One would have to go as far as Subhash Gupte to find a Bombay bred player who was in contention for one of the spots of Cricinfo’s all-time Indian XI.
It comes as no surprise that only Tendulkar and Gavaskar come from a pure Bombay bloodline in the final eleven, and apart from them, it is slim pickings in the 39 member pool itself- Vengsarkar, Gupte, Tamhane, Vengsarkar, Umrigar and Merchant to round up the best of Bombay in contention for the all-time Indian eleven. On this basis, one could conclude that the influence of Bombay on the Indian test team is overstated and their supremacy in India was only bluster- an organized cricket culture was non- existent outside Bombay till the 1960s; turf wickets, 3 day games and other basic infrastructural facilities were not the norm in other regions until recently, and their bowling revolved around the defensive tactics of testing the patience of a batsman with a 7-2 field. Its inward looking culture is symptomatic of a narrow worldview satisfied with domestic hegemony rather than global domination. It is rather surprising that for a city, that prides itself on a keen calculating mind and the business of getting things done, has contributed very little in the business of winning test matches for India through its bowlers. In any case, prowess gained by racking up tournament victories built on the basis of first innings lead is hardly the ideal preparation for an international class competition. Ramachandra Guha too has noted the absence of world class bowlers in the Bombay all time eleven, something which Makarand Waingankar has tried to apologetically explain in his “A Million Broken Windows” (many erstwhile competitors of Bombay cricket, clearly enamoured by its Ranji trophy winning mentality, of have tried to explain this recurring deficiency in the book). While the themes of the class based differences between bowling and batting have been written about earlier, Kapil Dev hit the nail on the indifference towards bowling in India by invoking the officer- worker class divide.
The usual suspects of Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Dhoni and Kohli may be contenders for the ultimate ODI matchwinner mantle for India but in my mind there is no doubt about Kumble’s place in Indian Test cricket. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Anil Kumble was India’s greatest matchwinner in the original format. Kumble is fourth overall amongst Indians who have featured in test wins and the highest placed bowler, naturally. More importantly, since bowlers play a pivotal role in wins, Kumble has the fourth highest wicket tally in wins overall at a bowling average that compares very favourably against the best in the business (minimum of 150 wickets in wins) in spite of being a spinner. He is the only Indian bowler who was in the rarified air of the greatest bowlers with good wickets/ test and bowling average laden wicket taking streaks. Yet, Kumble has not been celebrated in a manner commensurate with his contributions. A huge lacuna exists in the favourable coverage of a bowler and his exploits in Indian cricket literature from the past. Many themes, commemorative paeans and symbolism such as Dravid the wall, Tendulkar the tragic hero (in the 90s), Tendulkar the God, Laxman the artist etc. have been explored in detail by many a journalist thus bringing joy to countless Indians (including me) but the vast expanse of written cricket literature is barren when it comes to the bowlers. Some of the narratives which are fleetingly invoked in Kumble’s case are the heroics in Antigua test, the perfect ten at Kotla and the statecraft after the Sydney fracas. In contrast, plenty has been written about perfect poise of Dravid at the crease, ballads have been commissioned about the balance of Sachin post a straight drive past the bowler and oodles of odes have been serenaded about the ornate wristwork of Laxman.
Indian cricket would flourish by stepping aside from the traditional batting based narrative and mythos that is the Tales of Bombay and instead chart a new one- one which would be led by a bowler thus correcting decades of neglect and dilapidation. After all, the best Indian test results were achieved in this century, when the least number of Bombay players played for the Indian team. The Indian cricket team need not look anywhere apart from the dressing room for inspiration with Kumble as the coach. Indian cricket would do well to deify a bowler figure- someone with a triple jump run-up to the bowling crease, windmillling his way through an action- which had a googly that could be spotted mid- action from the comfort of a living room chair viewing television- to deliver the near perfect delivery; fast (some would say faster than Venkatesh Prasad), straight with a very fine deflection off the pitch (mostly attributed to a petrous formation on the pitch rather than the bowler) to take the edge and to be snared upon by a prowling close in fielder, or a fastish straight flipper thudding onto the pads of an unwitting tailender, only for our hero to jump up and down in expectant appeal in South Indian accented English, with a white hanky half tucked into the pants, flapping about, joining in a customary synchronized dance above the red marks caused by the ball. Picture this man on a windy Kotla evening in the Indian winter on a consistent basis in every test (Kumble averaged 16 with the ball at the Kotla), you have the panacea for India’s failings in test cricket. It is this non- recognition and systemic failure (personified by the poor portrayal in the press) of following a cricketing axiom which is the undoing of India as a test cricket playing nation. For a country obsessed with its traditions and history, it might be difficult to move away from its cricketing centre of gravity and fables; but if India has to learn anything from its history, it is that without a good bowling attack, no captain, aggressive or defensive, can consistently win test matches all over the world.
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