Anand Vasu writes about the 6th ODI, which India lost by 18 runs to suffer their first series defeat at home since Pakistan won 4-2 in early 2005. India have conceded 280+ in 5 out of the 6 games, and in the one game where the batting failed, they conceded 6 an over in the Australian run chase. The new ball bowling has been ordinary and none of the new ball bowlers have distinguished themselves. That has been the sole reason for the Indian defeat. You can bring up Dravid being out of form, Dhoni's captaincy decisions - none of those things have been significant.
This is easy to establish just by looking at the Australian side. Hodge has not distinguished himself, and the one time his bowlers had an off day, Ponting's Australia lost. They field better than India, but the point is that with poor bowling, the effect of the fielding wears off. This is fairly straightforward as well - if a bowler bowls the occasional bad ball, and someone fields brilliantly to save a certain four, then pundits claim that "it adds to the pressure on the batsman". This is an incomplete description, because what adds to the pressure is the fact that here was a rare scoring opportunity, where the batsman was denied because of great fielding. The operative word being "rare". With poor bowling, the problem is that scoring opportunities are a dime a dozen (10 out of 12 - a faux statistic to be sure, but close enough). Therefore, the value of a great bit of fielding in the broader contest between batsman and bowler is diminished. It might be argued that poor fielding hurts poor bowling less, than great fielding benefits accurate bowling.
Dravid's poor form and the fast bowlers poor bowling are not comparable problems. The former is temporary while the latter has become habitual, to the point where poor fast bowling is considered routine. Even if the wickets don't assist fast bowling and the batsmen are of high quality (as the Australians are), the bowling can still be "good". By this i mean, that Ponting and Gilchrist and Hayden and Symonds must surely be required at the very least to demonstrate their best form and their best skills in order to score runs at the rate that they do. There is a difference between going for 12 runs in an over conceding 2 backfoot cover drives played on the rise and two straight drives played on the up down the ground for twos, and going for 12 runs an over bowling wide half volleys and half trackers. The Australians have been consistently allowed the runs in the latter way, while the Indian batsmen have to score their runs in the former way - because that is the difference between the Australian and Indian bowling.
Compare Rahul Dravid's poor form, which has been a matter of concern (though muted by respect for the great man), and Zaheer Khan's performance in the last 13 ODI's that India have played (7 in England and 6 in India). Zaheer Khan has possibly been the "best" of the three Indian pacemen who are had use of the new ball for India in those games. He has taken 11 wickets at 54.81, going for 5.58 runs per over. Dravid has scored 284 runs at 25.81 in that period - poor returns. But, has Zaheer Khan's record invited the same scrutiny that Dravid's has? In my view, Zaheer's record in cricketing terms is worse than Dravid's - he hasn't taken enough wickets and he's gone for too many runs. But, for Zaheer and India, his performance seems to be par for the course.
That is the issue. The fast bowling is consistently poor and the bar is set so low for them, that they are viewed either as hapless victims of batting bullies or heroic crusaders who are full of machismo - returning stares with interest.
Given the records of our bowlers, they should not be engaging even in eye contact with batsmen. Or maybe they should, because batsmen are likely to smirk at them and lose concentration - probably the best chance our bowlers have of getting them out! Andrew Symonds and his ilk, who talk the talk after performing on the field (Symonds scores in this series have been 7, 87, 89, 75, 107*, he also averages 41 with the bat after 176 ODI's in the middle order and has a career strike rate of 93) are viewed as villains, while questioning jaw-jaw from Sreesanth supposedly amounts to putting him down! It is not surprising that the two loudest and silliest Indian bowlers in this series - Sreesanth and Harbhajan went for 120 in 16 overs for 2 wickets. India fell short by 18 runs. Inspite of playing 5 bowlers, M S Dhoni was forced to use his fifth bowling option for 6 overs - and those overs were cheaper than Sreesanth and Harbhajans - they went for 35. Harbhajan to a lesser extent that Sreesanth, because Harbhajan has at least established a record that commands some sort of respect.
I may be accused of going on and on about Sreesanth - but he happens to occupy one of the two most important slots in the ODI side - 10 overs of fast bowling (the other important slot is his new ball partner's). Those must be bankable overs for a captain. Yet, for 13 straight games now, those overs have been liability - in Sreesanth's case misguided, ill-focused, ill-mannered liability. It is not surprising that India have won 4 out of those 13 games and lost 8. Unless the new ball pair can be relied upon to bowl well, the other problems become irrelevant. Dravid will recover form, the the fielding is still quite safe (India don't drop catches any more or less than any other team), but the new ball pair gives no indication that they know what they're doing.
Unfortunately, opinion on this seems to follow the premise of the tipping point like most things. The "blame the batsmen and complain out athleticism" argument has been bandied about so often, that it has almost assumed the mantle of being the truth. Evidence suggests however, the the lack of quality in the fast bowling department has been much more perennial, and there is little quality to fall back on in the fast bowling as there is with the batting. Cricket suggests that quality or batting and quality of bowling are far more important than quality of fielding (or else Zimbabwe would be amongst the best teams in the world).
The value of quality fast bowling has to be considered when assessing performance. Just because India don't have quality fast bowling, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. Until this is realized, Symonds and co. will continue to make hay, Sreesanth will continue to look like a fool, and India will keep clamoring for "quality fielding in the inner ring". India will also continue to lose, for sooner of later the quality of the batting will surely fall from todays dizzy heights.