Friday, October 05, 2007

What do we expect of our bowlers?

Since the beginning of the natwest series in England on August 21st, India have played 10 ODI's now and even though one of those could not be completed because of rain (Bangalore ODI), here is a list of totals that India have conceded in those games:

Southampton: 288/2 (L)
Bristol: 320/8 (W)
Birmingham: 281/8 (L)
Manchester: 213/7 (L)
Leeds: 242/8 (W)
Oval: 316/6 (W)
Lord's: 188 (L)
Bangalore: 307/7 (NR)
Kochi: 306/6 (L)
Hyderabad 290/7 (L)

India have conceded 280+ in 7 out of 10 games, and two of those victories have come in high scoring games (Bristol, Oval). Looking through the bowling stats of the natwest tournament, the economy rates of our pacemen in that series are shocking by any decent standard (all though not so according to conventional wisdom in India, more on that later). Here's how they read:

Zaheer Khan 4.82, Average 67.50 runs/wicket
RP Singh 5.28, Average 31.71 runs/wicket
Agarkar: 7.11, average 44.71 runs/wicket
MM Patel: 8.23, average 26.75 runs/wicket

Coming to the three games against Australia, after the errant bowlers (the last two in the above list) had been dropped and less errant bowlers (Sreesanth, Irfan) had been picked,

Irfan Pathan 5.07, Average 35.50 runs/wicket
Zaheer Khan 6.00, Average 36.00 runs/wicket
Sreesanth 6.42, Average 22.50 runs/wicket
RP Singh 6.70, hasn't taken a wicket

The bowlers do not seem to be able to take a wicket unless they are profligate and concede about six runs/over. The only acceptable bowling average amongst those is Zaheer Khan's in England. And there it appears that his efforts in the Test series earned him the respect of the English batsmen - they seem to have decided to play him out.

There used to be the adage that 3/50 is better than 0/35 in 10 overs in an ODI. Both seem to be too much to expect from an Indian paceman. There is no point in blaming the spinners, because by the time they come on to bowler, the batsmen are set and the batting side is on the attack. The fifth bowler doesn't seem to be much of a problem either - the fifth bowlers overs go for 70 in 10 overs, while the main bowlers go for anything between 55-70! Most of our pacemen cannot be relied upon to bowl an entire over of decent line and length. Batsmen never seem to have to improvise at all to take 6 an over of our bowlers. Conceding 90-100 runs in the last 10 overs seems to have become par for the course for India.

And yet, the great concern seems to be whether or not the "senior" batsmen should be in the side! If they are asked to perform miracles in every game, then they will fail more often than they will succeed. If you lined up the 6 greatest batsmen in history, it would be no different. The selectors in this case can't do anything, because the best bowler in India - Munaf Patel, seems to be on the wrong side of public opinion (this time his fitness is not the issue). The "best" bowler in India - Sreesanth can't seem to figure out how to bowl a good line and length. The in form bowler - RP Singh seems to get the rough end of the stick - one bad effort and he's out of the side. Sreesanth is exasperating from the selection point of view, because amidst all his rubbish, he seems capable of producing some wicket taking gems.

It is interesting - the two best bowlers in India - Munaf Patel and Sreesanth, each have problems of temperament for which there seems to be no solution. One has drawn the rough end of public opinion and has the coach complaining about him behind his back, the other has drawn public adoration (misguided adoration in my view, detrimental to his own development), and seems to have nobody who can keep him on track! Inspite of having about 6 fast bowlers to choose from, India seem to be unable to decide a true pecking order. Venkatesh Prasad needs to explain a few things in my view.

As for the senior batsmen, not only do they face decisively superior bowling (i wonder what Dravid, Tendulkar and Yuvraj would average in Tests and ODIs if they were able to face the Indian bowling) than the opposition batsmen face, they also face ridiculously stiff targets game after game. India has lost the last 3 games (in my view they would have lost at Bangalore as well) because they do not have a clue as to how they are going to control the runs or organize their overs when they bowl.

Typically though, it is Dhoni (or Dravid before him) or the batsmen who will draw the public ire. If not them it will be the selectors or the "BCCI". The bowlers seem untouchable. This is not surprising - for to pay attention to the bowler is to pay attention to cricket. Everybody other than the pacemen have been doing their bit - the selectors have made good selections, the BCCI has hired bowling and fielding coaches and the batsmen have had a fine year.

5 of the top 13 run getters in ODI cricket in the year 2007 are Indians. The top 15 run getters in ODI cricket for the year 2007 include 5 Indians, 3 Australians, 3 Englishmen, 2 South Africans and 2 Sri Lankans. There are only 2 Indians amongst the top 20 wicket takers in ODI cricket this year - Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar.

We have come to accept 6 runs/over as a par performance from our bowlers. It is not. Even if ODI batsmen have become more aggressive, good bowlers still go for 48-50 runs in their 10 overs where they would go for 35-40 a few years ago. Out of the top 20 wicket takers in ODI cricket this year, if you leave out Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and Ryan ten doeshate of the netherlands, the other 17 bowlers have all conceded 4.7 runs/over or less.

A poor economy rate almost never means that a bowler is "aggressive" and "looking for wickets" all the time. A look at economy rates for India in 2007 is revealing. They are as follows:

In 2007 (figure in the bracket is the bowling average):

Harbhajan bowled 99 overs at 4.34 (61.42)
Ganguly bowled 53 at 4.71 (41.66)
RP Singh bowled 91 overs at 4.74 (33.23)
Zaheer Khan bowled 204 overs at 4.81 (32.80)
Munaf Patel bowled 88 overs at 4.83 (25.17)
Piyush Chawla bowled 111 overs at 4.84 (31.83)
Ajit Agarkar bowled 154 overs at 5.20 (32.08)
Sachin Tendulkar bowled 72 overs at 5.59 (44.77)
Yuvraj Singh bowled 69 overs at 5.85 (45.00)
Sreesanth bowled 84 overs at 6.08 (30.05)

Our best bowlers this year in terms of economy rate have been Harbhajan Singh, RP Singh, Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel. All the part timers (Sehwag has gone for 4.82) have done better than Sreesanth. Zaheer and Harbhajan seem to have lost the art of taking wickets. Munaf - i've said enough about him already.

We can't seem to play a steady bowling line up. Looking at the numbers above, its not hard to see why. And yet, we have a bowling coach who complains to the press about the one bowler who's record in 2007 compares favorably with that of any of the top bowlers around the world.

Its not hard to see where the problem lies - not just with the bowling, but with our expectations from our bowling. In my view it is indicative of our skewed understanding of cricket. Anybody in an cricketing community (including our own) will tell you that quality bowlers are gold. Ian Chappell, talking about captaincy on cricinfo recently said "it helps if a captain has a couple of good bowlers".

If the same standards that are applied to Tendulkar were applied to our bowlers, most of them wouldn't last more than 2 months. The reason they last, is because there are no Tendulkar's in the bowling line up. This points to a crucial point that the "give the youngsters a chance" crowd don't seem to understand. Chances have to be earned - they can't be handed over by default, simply to be nice to somebody. Whats happening in the bowling line up is that we are so used to mediocrity, that we don't know what to do with genuine quality when we see it (Munaf Patel). Some of us expect him to be a tearaway quick, when the true measure of his quality lies in the fact that he was able to modify his method to being an accurate brisk medium fast bowler. Some of us are stuck up on his alleged "attitude" problem. Fitness is a different issue. It is also the most professionally dealt with issue (mainly because the public doesn't interfere with it).

This Australian series is pretty much lost right now. A miracle might come about - but if it does, then that's precisely what it will be - a miracle. It will not be Dhoni's fault, it will not be the fault of the batting ..... the cause of defeat is down to conceding 300 in nearly every game. Bowling is our bogey. And it has been so for so long that we can't even identify it anymore. We seem to prefer the madness of Sreesanth (which results in him going for 6 an over - the worst among all our bowlers - specialist or otherwise this year).

If that is all we expect of our bowlers, then lets sit back, and watch India get pummeled to the tune of 6 an over and then get ready to belittle our batsmen for not performing miracles game after game.


  1. Totally agree with you Kartikeya, we need to expect more from our bowlers.

    Maybe our captains could lead the way!

    The "our batting is our strength" mantra is repeated ad nauseum by our captains - maybe they need to shift the spot light on the bowlers and tell them to deliver.

  2. Very good analysis. Agree with you on every count except one -- Munaf patel.

    Indian bowlers have been giving away runs like multi millionares in every game they play. And its just not here in India, but in England and SA too.

    Surprisingly they bowl well when the target for the opposition team is low and make a match out of it.

    We need wicket taking bowlers. something which Agarkar did untill 2005. he goes for runs, but took wkts. and the bowlers we have in the team either are lame ducks when it comes to take the wkts or are just contend to bowl the line and length and keep runs in check(MP, HS).

    Chawla took wkts in his first few gaems, but later on he too fell out, yet he can be pardoned for his relatively inexperience in the highest level.

    something which AK did in 90s should be the benchmark for the current bowling lineup to emulate.

    and for heaven s sake Yuvraj Singh shud be stopped bowling. this might destroy his confidence, though uptill now it has spurred him for good.

  3. I'm playing this on the basis of these stats - and a lot from memory, Kartikeya - but seems to me that the problem (referring to matches in question and using them as symptoms) has been consistency, has it not? So some two guys or one perform for one or to games and then don't perform for the next few. Overalll the stats suck but in some cases we persist, in some we don't. Speaking of bowlers only here ...

  4. Yeah..... but broadly, lack of consistency points to lack of quality.

    The difference between averaging 23 and 29 is quality.

    The bowlers are simply not good enough. And theres nothing a captain can do about it - no captain is going to demand something that he knows a bowler is unable to achieve.

    When Dravid or Ganguly said - batting is our strength, it was a cricketing judgement and a sound one.

    The point of this article was to drive home this reality... its not a question of inconsistency merely...

    The good performances are fluke performances in a sense.

    Put very simply - they're not very good.

    They may win the next game, but in a run of 10 games they'll probably bowl poorly in 7 of them.

  5. Well, I don't think thats ever been an area of doubt. That batting is our strength. That the bowling attack - as a combined force - are "not very good" (certainly compared to the best in the world) is not a serious debate either.

    But to be fair to those we pan about expecting too much of the batting, I don't think they expect the bowling to win them any games either.

    Also, if we're winning Tests - why aren't we winning ODIs ?