This is the best pace attack to ever come out of India.
How many times have we heard this sentence in 2018? It was first mentioned on a couple of occasions in South Africa, particularly in the aftermath of an epic victory in Johannesburg where the Indian pacers gave the Proteas a taste of their own medicine.
We heard time and again in England, repeatedly in fact, that the Indian pacers were the only saving grace in an otherwise embarrassing 4-1 Test series loss. Having landed in Australia now, it has been just over two weeks as the first Test in Adelaide looms. We have already this same sentence uttered on at least three occasions.
Ravi Shastri, R Ashwin and Cheteshwar Pujara, on different occasion, have spoken about the fantastic ability of their pace attack. And with good reason – Virat Kohli is spoilt for choice when he sits down to pick three out of five fast bowlers for an overseas Test.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar can move the ball like its on a string. Jasprit Bumrah bowls attacking lines of pace, troubling the batsmen with his incoming deliveries. Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav can generate ample pace too, and they take the ball away from right-handers, not to mention they also have the ability to generate reverse swing. Ishant Sharma is the leader of this pack – the workhorse who can hold one end together and bowl over after over.
Kohli might have complicated matters with the batting line-up, but picking the right pacers has been an easy task. It is not to say that they have completely delivered on the promise – India have only won 2 out of 8 overseas Tests in 2018, but that has been down to a lack of runs from their batting line-up.
The problem related to pacers has been twofold – perhaps because he has such riches available to him, Kohli hasn't been able to find the best mix of pacers yet and is often led by conditions. Sample what happened in South Africa. Kumar played the first Test, Sharma replaced him in the second Test, before four pacers were picked for the third Test – all of this determined by conditions.
In England, fitness worries took over. Overburdened and over bowled, Kumar's back gave out and he was completely ruled out. Bumrah played unnecessarily in Ireland and was injured, thus coming back only from the third Test onwards. Yadav played the first Test, and in a stunning reversal, he didn’t play the second Test when rain and a green top wicket played havoc at Lord's. Just what was Kohli thinking there?
It has led to a topsy-turvy mix for Indian pacers. Only Shami (40 wickets in 5 Tests), Bumrah (28 wickets in 6 Tests) and Sharma (26 wickets in 7 Tests) have come out of these past two tours with their heads held high, thus determining that it is more a three-pronged attack than anything else. At least it matches the consistency of the Australian pace attack.
Sample the last Test series Australia played at home. In the 2017-18 Ashes, Pat Cummins finished with 23 wickets in 5 Tests, Starc took 22 in 4 Tests and Hazlewood 21 in 5 Tests. The key aspect of their attack is that they don't rely on any one pacer to do the damage – it is a collective effort. Even so, they aren't the only ones responsible for England's 4-0 thrashing here last winter.
This is where the spin angle comes in. A key feature of Australia's Ashes win was how their pacers bowled around off-spinner Nathan Lyon. He did pick up 21 wickets in 5 Tests, showcasing how he is a fourth pillar of their bowling attack. The key statistic though is how many more overs he bowled as compared to the pacers. Lyon sent down 260.1 overs in that series, as compared to Cummins' 197.1 overs, Hazlewood's 190.5 overs and Starc's 162.3 overs.
Simply put, Lyon is the fulcrum of this Australian bowling attack and with him holding up one end, the pacers are able to put in short but effective bursts. It makes for highly efficient machinery, wherein Lyon is not only picking up wickets but also controlling the run-rate. Playing in their own conditions, this attack makes for a daunting prospect for the Indian batsmen to counter.
As such the question to ask herein is this – whom does the Indian pace attack look up to in the 'Lyon role'? Ashwin played 6 Tests in South Africa and England, picking up 18 wickets on those two tours. Compared to his previous form in those two countries, it was a marked difference in approach as concerns the Kookaburra and Duke's balls as also the adaptation to conditions. More importantly, he was able to bowl at an economy averaging 2.69.
Conditions in Australia will challenge Ashwin for sure, and by his own admission, his previous tour here in 2014-15 was a path-breaking moment in his Test career. He had picked up 12 wickets in 3 Tests with an economy of 3.40. Clearly, there has been some improvement in Ashwin as an overseas spinner judging from the 2014 to 2018 overseas cycles.
The underlying point is if Ashwin has progressed enough to provide a similar fulcrum to the Indian pace attack, like Lyon does for the Aussies in this match-up of two ferocious bowling units across four Tests.
Also by the author:The mistakes that cost Kohli & co. at Brisbane