India’s bowling — not all that it’s touted to be

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Recent successes notwithstanding, India cannot afford to be complacent regarding their new-ball capabilities in the ODI format. Bumrah apart, the men in blue still do not possess a potent and consistent striker in the opening overs.

India will win the World Cup? Bumrah and what army?

With due apologies to Zimbabwe, who have been pencilled in to visit in March, the Indian cricket team  is, at the time of writing, left with just 13 high-quality matches before the 2019 World Cup in England. Meaning, not a lot of time is left for getting the formula right in time for the World Cup.

Expectations from the Indian fan have changed too, with the Indian ODI side performing consistently well in recent times. Eight years ago, the famous World Cup victory in Mumbai seemed like a tryst with destiny, with the stars aligning for MS Dhoni’s team. Now, in view of strong showings in ODI tournaments away (such as in South Africa and England), it would not be an overstatement to say that a semifinal finish (as it happened in the 2015 World Cup) would most likely be branded as a failure. India’s current position in the ICC ODI rankings (in second place, behind England and well ahead of New Zealand) is justified.

The pieces have largely fallen in place too; with Ambati Rayudu having made a powerful claim for being the answer to the Indian middle-order riddle, just a few chinks remain in the armour of the ODI juggernaut that is the Indian cricket team. The issue of MS Dhoni’s ODI form is likely to be thorny, but he will most likely be given a free pass to the World Cup. With his place beyond question, the issue of India’s new-ball bowler occupies the limelight. A cursory look at the ICC ODI rankings reveals the extent of this problem. Granted, the ICC rankings aren’t perfect, but it does give a quick indication about which way the “form” wind is blowing. India’s pace spearhead, Jasprit Bumrah, leads the pack comfortably, with the two Indian wrist-spinners in the top 6. But it is rather slim pickings after that, with Bhuvaneshwar Kumar occupying the lowly 24th spot, (on 590 rating points). Don’t be fooled by the official ICC spiel though; it is quite misleading. Take a look for yourself and do the math:

 

Q: What does it mean to have, say, 500 points?

A: Ratings points have a meaning in the same way as traditional averages do. Over 900 points is a supreme achievement. Few players get there, and even fewer stay there for long. 750 plus is normally enough to put a player in the world top ten. 500 plus is a good, solid rating

With only a handful of teams playing top-quality cricket (~10 teams with 5 bowlers each), 24th spot is therefore only a middling return, a world away from world-class levels.

As the ICC rankings have revealed similarly, over the last two years, many bowlers have done quite well in the opening position. However, there are very few Indian faces among them. Looking at the bowling averages of players who have grabbed at least 20 wickets in the first two bowling positions (i.e. taking the new ball), Bumrah and Woakes have been standout performers, along with Starc, Hazlewood and Boult. India’s other representative, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, props up the table with a below-par bowling average of 38.

It must be admitted that it is a tad harsh to point fingers at Bhuvi alone. Make no mistake, he has shown fantastic nous at the death (as has Bumrah), but the lack of sting at the beginning has come to haunt India many times (2017 Champions Trophy final, anyone?). Over the last three years, India lags behind England, South Africa and New Zealand in terms of striking early with the new ball and this is a major weakness for a side that harbours ambitions of leaving behind a lasting legacy.

There is an additional angle to this problem, which is revealed by the ICC batting ODI rankings. One look at the batting rankings reveals that the last few years have comprised the era of the top-order batsman (interested readers could peruse a detailed analysis of top-order run inflation here). Of the top 20 spots, the only non-top-order batsmen mixing it with the batting elite from the top order are Ross Taylor, ;Mushfiqur Rahim, Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan — slim pickings overall. As ODI teams become more top heavy, taking wickets with the new ball and exposing the relatively fragile middle order is crucial to knock the wind out of the power-hitting ODI teams of today; as it is, two new balls and smaller grounds have only complicated this problem.

This is not to say that India have not tried. In fact, they have tried many combinations since the last World Cup but no one apart from Bumrah has stuck. For instance, the Hardik Pandya new-ball experiment was tried and abandoned some time ago. Mohammed Shami has hardly bowled in ODIs after playing through the pain barrier in the 2015 World Cup. Umesh Yadav sparkled with the new ball in the previous IPL but it hasn’t quite translated into team India ODI performances. Siddharth Kaul, Khaleel Ahmed and Deepak Chahar have been given chances but only Khaleel has shown glimpses of what he’s capable of (against West Indies). At some point, the team management must be hoping that one of these changes works out. After all, there is only so much clawing-back that Bumrah, Kuldeep, and Chahal can do. If Khaleel Ahmed can impress on the Australia tour, the slot will practically be his; his left-arm angle is an added advantage as well.

Jasprit Bumrah has rightly earned himself a rest after a gruelling year and Mohammed Siraj has been named in his place for the upcoming fixtures against Australia and New Zealand. With India’s top pacer sitting out two tough assignments, this is a golden opportunity for a new face to grab the limelight and solve this long-standing Achilles heel at the earliest. If the Indian team doesn’t find an answer to this issue, it could rear its ugly head during an important knockout match and jeopardise its World Cup hopes.

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