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India's Test attack stunted by a lack of pace

The Indian cricket team's Test record over the past decade is also due to memorable performances by the fast bowlers. A downslide is due to the fact there are so few pace options in the team, writes Dileep Premachandran.

The Eden Gardens Test of 2001 is often identified as a pivotal moment in Indian cricket. But while stopping the Steve Waugh-led Australian juggernaut at 16 wins was a momentous achievement, it was in England the following summer that India took the first big strides towards the No 1 ranking that they would eventually assume in November 2009.

The architects of that ascent are fairly well known. David Frith, the cricket historian, called the batting line-up that scored more than 2,000 runs in Australia in 2003/04 one of the finest that country had ever seen. VVS Laxman scored two sparkling centuries, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid scripted epic double-hundreds, and Virender Sehwag slashed and burnt his way to 195 at the MCG. All this after Sourav Ganguly had set the tone with a dazzling counter-attacking hundred at the Gabba.

Then, there were the spin twins. Anil Kumble retired with 619 Test wickets, third only to Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, while Harbhajan Singh has more (408) than any active player. These seven men were the constants, the strands that bound together every significant Indian achievement.

That is the popular narrative. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you will find plenty of contributions from a type of player not usually associated with Indian cricket the pace bowler. Kapil Dev retired with 431 Test wickets, a record at the time, and Javagal Srinath went past 200. But, by and large, India was still thought of as the land of the genius batsmen and wily spinners.

Look at Indian cricket's greatest triumphs over the past decade though, and the pace influence is undeniable. It was Ajit Agarkar's six for 41 that paved the way for victory at Adelaide in 2003.

When India won for the first time in Pakistan (2004), Irfan Pathan and L Balaji took 12 wickets apiece, behind only Kumble (15).

When they sealed their first Test win in South Africa, at the Wanderers in 2006, it was Sreesanth (8-97) and Zaheer Khan who did most damage. The following summer, Zaheer was the star of the "jelly bean" Test at Trent Bridge, as India won only their third series in England.

At Perth in 2008, on a surface that prompted Australia to pick four quicks, it was the Indian trio of Pathan, RP Singh and Ishant Sharma that took 14 wickets to secure a 72-run victory. At Kingsmead nearly three years later, on a green-tinged pitch where only Laxman (96) went past 40, Zaheer and Sreesanth led another rout.

And it was not just away from home that they excelled, either. When Australia were beaten 2-0 in 2008, Zaheer and Ishant took 26 wickets to the 29 taken by the two frontline spinners. When Sri Lanka were defeated by the same margin in 2009, Zaheer and Sreesanth took 18.

On surfaces that offered no lateral movement, they bowled cross-seam to scuff up one side of the ball, so that it would start reverse-swinging as early as possible. The combination of spin and reverse swing made India devilishly hard to beat at home.

Now though, the pace picture is terribly bleak. Zaheer, 34, has taken just 23 wickets from his last nine Tests. Ishant has been in and out of the side, while Sreesanth has seldom matched the heights he scaled at the Wanderers.

RP Singh, who made it to the Honours Board at Lord's in 2007, prompted only mirth when he trundled in at The Oval four years later. As for Pathan, once the great all-round hope, he becomes a non-factor when there is no swing.

MS Dhoni's call for turning tracks has not gone down well with everyone, but with few pace prospects other than the injured Umesh Yadav on the horizon, it is a request that stems from desperation as much as anything else.


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