CHENNAI: Indian cricket saw two farewells at Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi on Wednesday. One among them was Ashish Nehra bidding adieu to the sport after an association of 18 years and 250 days: a send-off with emotions, a standing ovation, and a lap of honour.
The other, though, was the antithesis of this ad hominem goodbye. Even as the grinning 38-year-old was lifted by Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan, those invested in the game may have felt a slightly-dour thought sink in: they were saying au revoir to India’s last world-class left-arm pacer.
Irrespective of a bowling cabinet that is already stuffed with quality right-arm speedsters, India’s search over the past few years for their next Zaheer Khan is one that is yet to culminate; a fact reiterated in public by Bharathi Arun only a month after his appointment as bowling coach.
The rationale behind the realisation of this void is grounded in a simple line of thought: they bring distinct advantages to the table. “They’re a rare commodity, and most batsmen are used to playing against right-arm pacers. Considering the role that hand-eye coordination plays, and that domestic cricket doesn’t provide extensive exposure to left-handed pacers, they do have the ‘surprise’ factor,” explained former India speedster and current Tamil Nadu bowling coach L Balaji.
“The change of angle and release point tends to throw off batsmen; they’re now dealing with a different pattern altogether. Plus, they have the natural ability to target the right-handers’ blindspot on the leg-stump. Coupled with movement into the batsman, they can be more than a handful.”
Numbers too nod in unison. For instance, consider the performance of speedsters from England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand: the top-four teams (in that order) in terms of scalps claimed by pacers across all formats since the start of 2015.
England’s and South Africa’s tally is made up mostly by right-handed speedsters: 783 out of 862 for the former and 705 out of 760 for the latter. But, things get interesting with Australia and New Zealand. The 826 wickets claimed by the Kangaroos’ pacers have a left-right split of 320:506. The Black Caps take it one notch higher with 346:394.
What really takes the cake is the number of men involved. Only five left-arm seamers were used by these two teams. Compare this to the right-arm pacers deployed — 29 for Australia and 17 for New Zealand — and this story doesn’t really need a narrator for unravelling itself.
That India have seen their fair share of dependence on left-arm quicks is quite the statement of obvious. A few years into this millennium, they saw a phase where the likes of RP Singh, Zaheer and Irfan Pathan shouldered their pace-bowling burden. Nehra himself has served as MS Dhoni’s go-to man during both the initial and the death overs.
With all this in consideration, the hypothetical inclusion of a lethal left-arm speedster to an already-robust India pace roster makes for a mouth-watering conjecture. But, Balaji and former India all-rounder Madan Lal advise against knee-jerk reactions in terms of selection. “There are a few names in the domestic circuit, but they need to perform in order to get there,” observed Lal.
“Having that potent left-armer in your team does give you added advantages and flexibility, but you can’t compromise on the fact that performance dictates selection. You can’t keep a left-arm pacer in the team just for the sake of it, especially when there are right-arm pacers who are doing well. These things can’t be forced.”
The 24-year-old from Punjab has played 6 ODIs and 2 T20Is with decent success. Not outright quick, relies on swing and accuracy. Took 4 wickets in 3 matches against Zimbabwe last year (economy 4.12). Three for 56 on debut against Australia in Perth remains his best.