India's leader of pace attack has what it takes to become a genuine threat Down Under, if used wisely, writes Michael Jeh
For a man who could be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic about India's prospects for the forthcoming Test series, Joe Dawes is refreshingly upbeat about India's bowling group. I've played alongside Joey since 1995 and he was never renowned for being diplomatic.
Brutally honest, frighteningly pacy, doesn't suffer fools but he would never tell you what you wanted to hear just because it might be politically correct. So when I asked him about India's chances Down Under, what you read is what he thinks.
That's not to say that it's necessarily a prediction of a resounding victory. That it will be a tough series to win is obvious to all but the foolish patriot. What Dawes has seen from his few years with the Indian bowlers is encouraging but couched in caveats around fitness, injury and that ability to turn potential into actual outcomes. Aaron's pace clearly has him excited but he is young and raw.
Sometimes, raw pace on fast wickets can go the distance. Strike bowlers need to be used sparingly but with no genuine all-rounders and the slow bowler likely to be milked for 4-plus runs per over, will Aaron get enough rest between spells to still push 150 kph late in the afternoon.
Ishant Sharma is the key. According to Dawes, he has what it takes to become a genuine threat, if used wisely. His spindly frame will always be an ongoing concern but from all accounts, he has an excellent work ethic, a clear head on his shoulders and relishes being a leader.
His mentoring of the younger lads has impressed Dawes who knows something of this art form having played most of his first-class cricket around fast bowlers like Michael Kasprowicz, Andy Bichel, Ashley Noffke, Adam Dale and Scott Muller. The ability to lead an attack is a skill that is under-rated and often goes unnoticed. Sharma ticks these boxes. If he stays fit, his best may yet be a few years away, not always reflected in the figures. His performances in South Africa last year speak to that truth.
Impact of Phil's injury
It will be interesting to see how the Phil Hughes accident affects the psyche of both teams, leading into a series that is likely to be played more off the back foot. The pitches are likely to be fast and bouncy, the bowling hostile at times.
Will that aggressive intent be tempered by the realities of the inherent dangers of the sport or will that just spook some batsmen even more? The early footage from the Hughes incident though suggests that it wasn't raw pace that felled him — exactly the opposite in fact. He looks to have been early on the shot. With a few bowlers nudging 150 k's next week, I'm not convinced that too many will be early on hook shots henceforth!
One of India's problems will be their lower-order batting. There will be times when it gets scary, trying to fend off Mitch Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Ryan Harris. Will those few extra runs be worth the broken fingers, cracked ribs and bruised shoulders? It's all very well to talk about showing courage, getting into line, not taking your eye off the ball but when that red missile is thundering past your nose and you have flashbacks of the ambulance carting off poor Hughes, it is not that easy to hold your nerve. England's tail were blown out of the water last summer and the Aussies know what length to bowl.
Learning from failures
The Indian batsmen will need to learn from their flat-footed failures in England. There, it was swing more than seam that showed up their hard hands and lazy feet. It will swing less here but whatever happens happens fast. You can leave on length, not line but if you become too defensive, when the game eventually changes momentum, you might find that you've gone nowhere. I've said this before — in Australia, you don't often win a Test in a single session but you can easily lose a series in a short space of time.
England learned that lesson on that brutal Friday afternoon at the Gabba last year between lunch and tea. For all intents and purposes, the Ashes were surrendered that afternoon, Jonathan Trott's career in similar smouldering ruins. India will cop some of that medicine too; the key will be how much they can limit the damage when the crowd is baying for blood, Indian blood. Late afternoon at the Gabba can be an intimidating place as the beer-fuelled crowd incite their heroes to crank it up an extra yard or two.
Generally speaking, the toss has less of an impact in Australia, poor weather notwithstanding. Pitches don't crumble that much and whilst the first session can always be testing for the batsmen, runs come steadily all day. The peaks and troughs of the Subcontinent are less evident. It is always helpful to win the toss of course but knowing what to do is not always self-evident. Bat first and you could be blown away by tea (West Indies at the Gabba, November 2000) or you could be 300 runs to the worse and bleeding profusely (England at the Gabba, November 2006).
If the broad-shouldered, barrell-chested Dawes' optimism is anything to take heart from, here is a man whose affection for India is evident in the way he talks up the team, like a proud cousin. If I was expecting anything negative, I was disappointed. All I got from him was a sense of time well spent in India and friends for life. There's respect there for Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma in particular — India will need their broad shoulders and cool heads. For the fiery Kohli especially, he might do well to remember that revenge is a dish best served cold. Not bold. Or bowled!
Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class player