Having deservedly become the top-ranked team in Test cricket, India must address its most obvious vulnerability if it is to prolong its reign. Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain and one of cricket’s best minds, spotlighted the weakness recently when he said sides that were successful over long periods were powered by at least two champion bowlers; from studying the averages and strike-rates of India’s bowlers over the last year, he couldn’t find even one champion bowler. The last instance of an Indian bowler finishing the year (minimum qualification: five Tests) with an average in the mid-20s and a strike rate below 50 occurred in 2007, Zaheer Khan’s 41 wickets coming at a rate of 25.73 runs and 48.6 balls per dismissal. Other statistics confirm this worrying trend: in seven of India’s last nine Test series, it has conceded over 500 in an innings at least once; in three of these series India’s bowlers have been taken for over 600 at least once. Against Bangladesh, barring Zaheer’s inspired burst in the second innings of the second Test, India’s bowling laboured to shift the opponent’s lower-order.
There may be no cause for panic ahead of the series against South Africa, the world’s second-best-performing Test team. The bowlers may have struggled but India has won five successive series: evidently the side knows how to adjust. The problem does, however, expose a system that has disenfranchised the bowlers. Until such time a pitch allowing a run glut receives the same condemnation as one unfairly privileging the bowler, the bowling community will remain marginalised. India’s administrators who reacted smartly to the criticism that the national side wasn’t playing enough Test cricket must now concentrate their efforts on improving wickets across the country. Spin, traditionally an Indian strength, demands attention. Harbhajan Singh’s performance as lead spinner after the great Anil Kumble’s retirement has been patchy: he has on occasion swung matches, but is yet to command the consistency and penetration his role demands. Neither Amit Mishra nor Pragyan Ojha has made a clinching case as second spinner, but they must be allowed both time and trust. Any bowler capable of defeating high-quality batsmen in defence — as good a guideline as any for determining a potential champion wicket-taker — must be kept from slipping through the cracks in the system. Bowlers are a susceptible lot: injury and minor kinks in action can undo the endeavour of decades. They require considerate, nuanced treatment. Ian Chappell’s truth telling must be appreciated and acted upon.