That cricket is a ‘batsman’s game’ is well touted. But it is high quality bowling, like we are seeing in the first Test between England and Pakistan underway currently, which makes the sport come alive.
So engaging has been the contest between batsmen and bowlers on the first two days at Lord’s that it has made the raging debate over the size and dimensions of the bat seem academic: at least temporarily.
All eyes were naturally on Mohammed Aamir on his return to international cricket after serving his five-year ban, but the ones who’ve grabbed the wickets — and headlines — have been Chris Woakes and Yasir Shah.
I am not overlooking the splendid century made by Misbah-ul-Haq. This was his first appearance at Lord’s and he made it memorable, saving his team from a crisis (yet again), and also sending out a message to his team as well as cricketers all over the world.
At 42, Misbah has the fitness and desire of somebody 15 years younger. Technical finesse and superb temperament has helped him to an impressive average around 50 though he started his career only when 34.
He is among the most inspirational figures in cricket today. Apart from fine batting ability, there is also the captaincy aspect to Misbah’s cricketing personality that is equally significant.
Under him Pakistan’s players, otherwise notoriously volatile and unpredictable, seem to have settled down and performed with a degree of pride and consistency that was sorely lacking. Only the imperious Imran Khan has been a better captain for his country in my opinion. But that’s a story for another day.
It is the success of bowlers so far in the first Test, particularly Woakes and Yasir, that is germane to this column.
Woakes showed splendid control and fine ability to swing the ball late, making up for the absence of James Anderson. Yasir, back from a three-month ban having failed a dope test, had English batsmen in a tail-spin with his fine repertoire of leg spin bowling.
That Yasir could get a five-wicket haul on the second day itself should dispel the notion that slow bowlers can only succeed in the third or fourth innings, after there has been sufficient wear and tear of the pitch.
The first Test is intriguingly poised and the series promises to be delightfully competitive, in contrast to the disappointingly one-sided contest between England and Sri Lanka earlier in the season.
This would not be possible if both teams did not have quality bowling. England’s surge as a Test team in the past couple of seasons is linked to the success of Anderson, Broad & Co, and Pakistan, despite a struggling batting side are still a threat to any team anywhere because of the bowling.
The larger point is that if not enough emphasis is paid to bowling, it affects a team’s win-worthiness adversely. The instances of a series being won by batsmen alone are negligible in Test history; those won by teams with modest batting but strong bowling is plentiful. This is the big challenge confronting Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble as India start their four-Test series against the West Indies next week: can India forge a bowling attack that can win matches consistently, more particularly overseas? India’s bowlers have never been able to overrun even modest opponents outside of the sub-continent. Part of the problem has been ability, of course, but there are other factors too, with fitness and self-belief being paramount. In recent years, the team has often had the opponent on the mat, only to squander the opportunity.
Bowlers would tend to flag, and with that the motivation to win too. The away series’ against South Africa and New Zealand (2013-14), England (2014) and Australia (2014-15) bear this out amply.
This is the mindset and physical limitations that Kohli and Kumble need to overcome. The bowlers can’t be allowed to remain in the comfort zone that they can always prove their credentials in home conditions. The West Indies are not the strongest Test team currently. But how India’s bowlers fare, how many Tests are won and how emphatic these victories are will define how the team evolves going ahead.