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India need a Zaheer now more than ever

It’s the Cricket World Cup semifinal. The SCG. I’m witnessing live what was to be the defining moment of India’s summer of cricket in Australia. India had failed to win a single game of cricket on tour against the Aussies. They had turned it around in the World Cup, unbeaten for 7 games, including against the likes of archrivals Pakistan, and the best team to have never won a World Cup, South Africa.

The atmosphere on the way to the ground was electric. Random Aussies would stop me in my tracks saying – “It’s going to be a good game” or “Come on Australia.” They knew it was game on. The tone later that week in the lead up to the final against New Zealand was decidedly different. “I think Australia will win”, was what I heard.

What followed was a bashing of India’s bowling attack for nearly 330 runs on a fairly flat wicket at the SCG. Steve Smith didn’t know how to get out to India last summer. If he did, he clearly didn’t want to.

India’s bowling attack was toothless once again. What R Ashwin could do to contain the scoring he did. 1/42 of the most controlled spin bowling one can imagine. How well he has improved cannot be spoken of enough.

India’s fast bowlers went for a collective 215 runs of 29 overs at an economy rate of 7.4 runs per over. You could rewrite the same script, change the opposition and the venue, and the result would be not much different over the past three years.

India’s fast bowling ranks are as weak as ever. I started religiously following cricket when I was 7 in 1994. It’s probably fair for me to comment on that period on. Let’s look at some of the stats.

Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad were the “spearheads” of the Indian attack in the 90s. While they weren’t exactly the most fearsome new ball pair around, their stats look actually pretty good. Srinath picked up 315 ODI wickets in just 229 matches at an average of 28, and an economy rate of 4.4. Not bad at all. Prasad on the other hand picked up 196 wickets in 161 games at an average of 32 and an economy rate of 4.7. For perspective, the top 50 bowlers in this decade picked up wickets at an average of 29 and an economy rate of 4.3.

Next up were the 2000s. Zaheer Khan was the leader of India’s attack during this decade, with supporting acts from Ajit Agarkar, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Sreesanth and a host of other fast bowlers such as RP Singh and L Balaji.

Agarkar picked up 288 wickets at an average of 28 and an economy rate of 5.1. Zaheer picked up 282 wickets at an average of 29 and an economy rate of 4.9. Nehra picked up 157 wickets at an average of 32, and an economy rate of 5.2, while Munaf picked up 86 wickets at 30 and 4.9. The top 50 bowlers during this decade picked up wickets at an average of 28 and an economy rate of 4.6.  Not too shabby from India’s best once again.

On the other hand, the current decade tells quite a different story. While the top 50 bowlers in this era have taken wickets at an average of 29.5 and an economy rate of 4.9, India’s fast bowlers have significantly diverged from the economy rate and average standpoints. India’s main fast bowlers during this timeframe have been Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar. Let’s look at their numbers.

Ishant: 106 wickets at 31 and 5.7

Shami: 87 wickets at 25 and 5.5

Bhuvi: 52 wickets at 35 and 4.6

Yadav: 72 wickets at 32 and 5.8

Mohit Sharma: 27 wickets at 31 and 5.1

None of the 5 above have been able to manage both a healthy average and a decent strike rate. While Shami and Yadav have been wicket taking bowlers, they haven’t been able to keep the run rate down. Ishant hasn’t been able to do either consistently, and while Bhuvi has been able to keep the scoring rate down, he hasn’t been the match-winning wicket-taker that India needed. And collectively, they are 0.5 runs per over higher than the average. Over 30 overs, this is a 15 run disadvantage that India starts every game with.

Compare these to Zaheer’s numbers in an era where boundaries were as short as ever (early 2000s) and where the IPL meant bowlers were severely attacked by batters more than ever before (late 2000s). His average, economy rate and his ability to lift himself across all geographies make him stand out as India’s top fast bowler in the last 20 years. For my money, he trumps Srinath, Agarkar and all the others because of his ability to come back and bowl that match-winning spell from nowhere.

He was an asset to every captain, bowled with his brains, and he continued to improve (just like Ashwin) even when his pace dropped down to 80 mph towards the end of his career. He was able to bring out performances that showed that you don’t need to be express pace to be amongst the best in the world.

Zaheer’s announcement that he is retiring from international cricket is a reminder to Indian fans, but more so to administrators, that we need a fast bowler who is able to lift himself when the chips are down. Someone who can provide Dhoni and Kohli that wicket to bring his side back in the match. Now more than ever, India needs its fast bowlers to show up.

Who will be India’s next Zaheer?

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