How many times have we heard discussions and debates surrounding India's fast bowling and it being pedestrian? Innumerable times, right? Most such debates also end up blaming the so-called 'pace bowlers' the root cause of most, if not all, problems in Indian cricket. The popular criticism includes pacers not taking wickets when the ball is new (now there are two new balls these days), the fact that they can't contain in the middle overs and finally leak buckets in the death overs.
India off-spinner R Ashwin during the second ODI against NZ in Hamilton last month. Pic/AFP
What if I were to tell you that it isn't the first 15 or the last 10 overs that are hurting India the most, but the overs between the 15th and the 40th that wreak havoc. It is this period between the 15th-40th overs when we are allowing the game to quietly drift away, which in turn sets up the stage for an onslaught in the last 10.
The year 2013 was a phenomenal one for Indian cricket, especially in one-dayers, for India won as many as 6 ODI series (bilateral, triangular and multi-nation). While our batsmen, quite rightly, walked away with most credit for these wins, our bowlers, especially the fast bowlers, were criticised without analysing their performance deeply.
The question we should be asking is — what should be the yardstick for judging the new ball attack? The answer being simple — runs conceded in the first 15 overs and wickets taken, more of the latter. And if my seam bowlers are giving me a couple of wickets on an average, I shouldn't be complaining too much, right?
The real problem for the fielding side arises when the first couple of wickets don't fall early, for that allows the opponent to spread the risks nicely and that invariably leads to big scores. In the last 30 ODIs, Indian bowlers, on an average, have taken 2 wickets without conceding too many. They have taken three wickets or more in the first 15 overs at least eight times and have conceded not more than 85 runs in the same period.
Initially, it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar who provided those early wickets, almost every time he bowled. And once he went a little off-colour, Mohammed Shami took over and started taking early wickets. India's successful run last year had a lot to do with our pacers' ability to make early inroads. But the story after that, right up till the 40th over did leave a lot to be desired, for the middle overs didn't complement the good work accomplished in the first 15 overs.
On an average, the opposition against India lost only three more wickets in the 25 overs between the 15th and the 40th. On more than 15 occasions in the last 30 ODI, the opposition had five wickets or more in their kitty while going into the last 10. With lots of wickets in hand, it goes without saying that the last 10 overs went for many and hence Indians were asked to chase an above par score often.
India's death bowling woes are well documented and this is where the fast bowlers must cop the blame too. They're simply not good enough to control the damage. But most teams around the world, barring South Africa, are struggling in the death overs courtesy the new playing conditions. So, Indians aren't the only ones conceding 8.5-9 runs an over in last 10 overs.
Not enough wickets
But, unfortunately, what goes unnoticed often is the lacklustre show in the middle overs. Whether it's Dhoni's defensive tactics or it is our spinners' inability to take wickets that makes him defensive makes for a classic chicken and egg story. Though it really doesn't matter, for the bottom line is that India isn't taking enough wickets in the middle overs to put the brakes on the opposition.
Ashwin has taken 17 wickets in the last 17 ODIs and Jadeja has taken 18 in the last 17 matches. These are worrying numbers and if they don't change drastically, even the supremacy at home would be under threat. Going into the Asia Cup, post the alarming losses in New Zealand, Kohli & Co must look to capitalise on the early wickets and tighten the noose in the following 25 overs, for that would automatically ensure that the damage in the last 10 is manageable.
The number of wickets spinner R Ashwin has taken in the last 17 ODIs