CHENNAI: Melbourne. Brisbane. London. Centurion. In the last year and a week, India have won five overseas Tests in four cities. All those wins have been orchestrated by a fast-bowling attack that’s been relentless and in the face of the opposition. Think of India’s pace unit as an apex predator. It lays the trap, waits patiently before ambushing it.
Why they have been so successful — apart from the depth — is the way they pick wickets. Once they smell blood, to keep the predator-prey analogy going, the only thing they leave behind is the rotting carcass. It’s why they pick up wickets in clusters. Here’s an example, or four, to drive home the point. At Melbourne, the hosts went from 124/3 to 155/6 (3/31 in 20 overs).
While a club attack could engineer a collapse against the current England set-up, at Nottingham, the hosts went from 138/3 to 183 (7/45 in 16 overs) in the first innings. At Lord’s, 67/3 became 90/7 (4/23 in 16.3 overs) enroute a famous Test win.
What the pace attack did at Centurion was, in essence, what they had been doing throughout the year. In the South African first innings, one substantial partnership was sandwiched between two big clusters (4/32 in 12.5 overs and 3/41 in 12.4 overs).
Suffice to say it’s hard to come up with a response against an attack that’s so rounded it may have well been made in a laboratory. Jasprit Bumrah is the once-in-a-generation trickster who conjures magic with the new and old ball. He’s the magician who’s so good at taking wickets up front, breaking partnerships in the middle phase before cleaning up the tail.
There is Mohammed Shami, an analog bowler in the digital world in the sense that he can do everything without one specified role. New ball bowler? Tick. First-change? Tick. Find movement off the strip? Check. Set batters up? Okay. Bowl the odd bouncer? Tick. Bring the ball back in to hit the shave the bail? Yes, sir.
Mohammed Siraj is the attack dog of this team and that’s not a bad thing. He was the lead bowler in just his third Test (Brisbane). What he does so well is channel his boundless energy towards getting a wicket off every ball. In that sense, he’s like a golden retriever that’s just been left out after being confined to a room for a few days. He’s always there, asking questions of the batter.
The fourth man of the attack, at least in South Africa, is Shardul Thakur.
What the Maharashtrian is good at is soft dismissals. Sure, he does offer teams a release shot now and then but he’s mastered the art of taking wickets in all sorts of ways (caught at slip, caught on the leg-side when flicking uppishly, chopped on et. al) in his still very nascent career.
It may come as a surprise but Thakur, in the last four matches, has picked up wickets in seven of the eight innings. In fact, in the matches he has figured in during that time, he’s the second highest Indian wicket-taker (16 just behind Bumrah’s 18).
Therein lies the problem against a complete pace attack with each of them bringing something unique to the table.
Coach Rahul Dravid, who hasn’t been with the side for long, posited that there was no great secret behind this but looking at video footage, planning and perfect execution of those plans.
“We have looked at a lot of footage, we have done a lot of strategy and planning around that. We bowled beautiful lengths in the first innings, we were able to bowl slightly different lengths in the second innings depending on the wicket and the conditions. I think that’s really down to the skill of the bowlers. The bowlers are able to change the kind of lengths they need to bowl mid innings depending on wicket and ball changes and you need to be able to do that. I thought we did that really well.”
If the pacers can continue executing the plans, Johannesburg maybe added to the list of overseas cities where they have won a Test in the last 12 months and a bit.