It is impossible to compete in Test Cricket without fast bowling. As the first three Tests between India and England have shown, having ordinary fast bowling on result oriented pitches can be lethal for a team, even with a fine batting line up. What is the relationship between bad fast bowling and added pressure on the batting line up? Its quite simple. When India bowled (especially when Sreesanth and Ishant bowled), England's batsmen could be assured of at least 2 free hits every over. In addition, they could be assured of at least a couple of other deliveries which could be easily left alone outside off stump. All in all, on a result oriented wicket, they had to survive only two, at the most three deliveries every over that had any chance of getting them out. In one spell, Sreesanth bowled 6 out of 48 deliveries in the general vicinity of the top of off stump. Count that. 1 out of 8. On the other hand, when Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman - right handers all, batted against Anderson, Broad and Bresnan, they were defending their off stump almost every single ball.
Think about it this way. If Ishant Sharma bowled 10 overs, or 60 deliveries, he bowled about 20 that tested the batsman. Of these, he would get about 5-6 in really perfect areas. But because he bowled a lot of indifferent deliveries, his captain would be forced to place fielders for bad balls - resulting in fewer catching men - resulting in fewer chances. On the other hand, if James Anderson bowled 10 overs, or 60 deliveries, he bowled about 40-45 on a very good line and length. Of these, he would pitch may be 12-15 in really perfect places (these depend on the batsman and his technique). Of these maybe one or two would induce a decisive error - a miss or a edge or a hit on the pad. Further, because Anderson was accurate, his captain would be able to afford to keep more men in catching positions, there by creating a better chance of the ball going to hand.
Inaccurate bowling has an even larger effect on result pitches and conditions than it does on flat featherbeds in bright sunshine. With runs on the board (474/8, 544 all out and 710/7 would be three examples), a captain can attack for much longer. The field setting when 100/2 plays 250 all out is different compared to the field setting when 100/2 plays 480 all out. In many ways, inaccurate bowling is a far greater disaster on result wickets than it is on flat wickets. When nothing is happening off the wicket or in the air for a fast bowler, accuracy goes only so far against good players.
Here's an example of how Zaheer Khan works over the average left handed batsman. Its a very sophisticated operation. First, he looks for the perfect in between length which makes it hard for the batsman to come forward decisively. Then, he hits that length consistently outside off stump. The length is key, not just the line. If a batsman is able to leave a ball outside off stump, playing on the back foot, or playing fully forward, then he is more sure of his off stump. Whenever you see a batsman leave a ball outside off stump and take a step after the ball has passed the bat, you can conclude that he was off balance when left the ball. Zaheer moves his lines slightly wider, often for as long as a couple of overs. When he's sure that the batsman is moving sufficiently far across to his off stump, he slips in the in swinger or the off-cutter to the left hander. He either gets batsmen bowled or LBW.
He can do all this because he possesses control. Having this control allows him to probe away at weaknesses that batsmen might demonstrate on the fly. If a batsman is sitting on his back foot, or if a batsman is tending to move too far across his stumps, or if a batsman is favoring the square cut, Zaheer can do something with this information, because he can actually bowl the ball exactly where he wants to with great subtlety. His use of the bouncer is a case in point. If you have noticed, when Zaheer bowls a bouncer, batsmen are invariably surprised and rushed. Batsmen are on edge against him, because he's constantly working on keeping them there. Dale Steyn is similar. Malcolm Marshall was the same according to a few who have watched him live, but they say that he had many more tricks up his sleeve compared to Zaheer, in addition to a couple of extra yards in pace. Glenn McGrath had this ability to manipulate batsmen as well.
This is the bowling equivalent of a batsman like Lara or Tendulkar predicting what length the bowler will bowl, or making the bowler bowl a certain length. A batsman like Kevin Pietersen is the batting equivalent of a genuinely quick express fast bowler. His method is to step across and plant his front foot down the wicket outside off stump. He has mastered this method and rarely falls into the trap of playing across the line unless he wants to. Against a one dimensional bowler like Ishant Sharma, this kind of tactic can be lethal.
Watching Ishant Sharma or Sreesanth, one does not get the sense that they possess this kind of control. Most of the time, they do not let you suspect that they have any control at all. Even bowling a steady line and length seems to require great effort. On the rare occasion when everything goes right, they get wickets.
A bowler of Zaheer or McGrath or Ishant or Sreesanth's pace needs this kind of control to be effective in Tests. Very few Test batsmen are likely to play bad shots often enough to allow bowlers of that pace to be successful Test bowlers relying on unforced errors and unplayable deliveries alone.
So how does a fast bowler acquire this control? The most oft heard answer to this question is - by bowling. By bowling long spells. This not only conditions the body to survive long spells and difficult days in Tests, but also allows the bowler to practice ways of working batsmen over. First Class Cricket is the perfect place to try this, because the batsmen in this class of cricket are not as good, and are easier to work over.
How much does your average successful fast bowler - the life blood of any successful Test team, bowl? Lets take a look. In the table below I look at some of the most successful fast bowlers in the history of Test Cricket. Focus especially on the last 3 Columns. These show the average number of overs bowled per year in first class cricket other than Test Cricket, in Tests alone, and in all first class cricket.
Look at some of the more recent bowlers. Brett Lee has bowled on average 80 first class overs per year outside of Test Cricket. The effect of increasing limited overs cricket is quite clear, especially when compared to say Courtney Walsh or Curtley Ambrose. But Lee was an express pace bowler, not a fast medium operator like Ishant or Sreesanth. Lee also missed a lot of cricket due to injuries.
But keep in mind that these are averages over the full career. Glenn McGrath for example, played Test Cricket for 15 years out of the 16 that he was a first class cricket. He averaged a 130 first class overs per year outside Test Cricket over those 15 years. This includes tour matches, first class matches for New South Wales and County Cricket for Worcestershire and Middlesex. It is reasonable to assume that once he became established as a Test player, his Test committments meant that he needed to rest and play fewer first class games. In those 16 years, he also missed a couple years through injury - 1998 and 2003 come to mind immediately. It is reasonable to assume, that when he was fit, McGrath was playing at least 5 first class games every year, outside his massive Test and ODI committments. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Wasim Akram, Imran Khan, and the West Indians regularly played the full county season when Pakistan or West Indies were not touring England.
It is also reasonable to assume that each of these bowlers did a lot more first class bowling in their formative years, than they did in their later years when they had mastered their art and needed to preserve themselves for Test Cricket. In the 1950s and 60s, a bowler like Fred Trueman bowled a 1000 overs per summer at his peak, at fairly rapid pace, and averaged 670 per year over 21 years. But Trueman played only 67 Tests for England over 15 years. Brian Statham, Trueman's new ball partner in the 50s, played first class cricket for 19 seasons and averaged nearly first class 750 overs a year outside his Test match bowling.
By contrast, India's current fast bowlers bowl very little in first class cricket. Ishant Sharma has bowled 689 first class overs since he made his first class debut in 2006. It is no surprise that his Test bowling performances fell away after the highs of his Australian tour of 2008. He has bowled fewer overs in the three most recent seasons of first class cricket taken together (from 2008-09), than he did in each of his first two seasons. Kapil Dev averaged 180 first class overs over and above his Test match bowling over his career. It is fair to expect that in his early years he bowled much more.
Zaheer Khan offers another stark example. Of his 2267 overs in First Class games, 618 came in a single summer for Worcestershire in 2006. Zaheer has been playing top level Cricket for over a decade now, yet a fourth of his overs have come in 1 season.
Limited Overs Cricket does not feature extensively in Ishant's CV. He has played only 47 ODI games for India. Since his debut, India have played 132. But T20 games do. Ishant has played 11 T20 games for India, and an additional 43 in the IPL. Even thought IPL games do not involve too much bowling, they involve enormous amounts of traveling for very little cricket. This must take its toll on a players body. To make things worse, they are bowling extensively in very damaging situations - games in which the average spell is 2 overs long, and the average batsmen is trying to hit you to the boundary most of the time. Situations that are designed to destroy a bowler's rhythm.
It is no surprise that India have not developed fast bowlers. The irony is that this is probably India's strongest , deepest fast bowling bench of ever. Had they played substantial first class cricket, this would have been a very fine fast bowling attack. As it happens, it is something of a miracle that India were the world's number 1 Test team for as long as they have.
If India do not find fast bowlers and let them develop in their early years of first class cricket, then they will never compete in the top tier of Test teams. The batting will not always be as brilliant as it is now. Forget Duncan Fletcher, not even God will be able to help India if they keep going into Test Matches with bad fast bowlers.
It is true that there has never been a tradition of fast bowling in the Ranji Trophy. This needs to change. They need to play more first class games, on better wickets. There is no easier way to finding top fast bowlers.