You need 20 wickets to win a test match. Even if your batsmen score big runs, you need your bowlers to get the opposition out. These were Virat Kohli’s words at the toss of one of the test matches recently.

It isn’t something new or unique he said or suggested. But, now that an Indian captain can say these words and be confident of taking opposition’s 20 wickets in tests away from home says a lot about the improved bowling attack of India in the last few years, especially pace.

Whether it was a bygone era of Chetan Sharma or the time of Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar, India always have had quality pace-bowling arsenal in their ranks. Bowling with consistent line, lengths and accuracy used to bear fruits for their hardwork more often than not. 

Dependence on spin

But what India’s pace attack lacked in all those years was a genuinely quick bowler, with extra 10-15 yards. India kept searching for that something extra for longer period than they intended to. And, since they used to play overseas tests in SEAN countries (South Africa, England, Australia and England) once in 4-5 years in one coontry, the need didn’t seem urgent as spinners were doing the job at home as well as countries like Sri Lanka and West Indies.

However, something changed, shifted after the 2014 England series in England, which India lost by 3-1. The lone test that India won at the Lord’s was on the back of a mind-bending spell of fast, short-pitched bowling by Ishant Sharma that sent English batsmen packing one after another. He ended with 7-74.

Under, MS Dhoni, India had dependable spinners in the likes of Pragyan Ojha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja to give them the breakthroughs. The latter ones continue to do so, which they provide even now too. However, India didn’t have that dependable seam bowlers, to whom they could go to especially in SEAN countries. They lacked that zip that was required in the overseas matches to take 20 wickets which they seldom did in that period.

The Shift

But when the Indian test team leadership was passed onto Virat Kohli during the 2014-15 Australia series, the first thing that he wanted to change for India’s test side was their overseas record, the one in SEAN coutries. And, to change that you needed a quality pace-bowling attack, who could bowl fast, consistent lines and take wickets.

And, since then India hasn’t looked behind as far as their fast bowling stocks are concerned. The trio of Virat Kohli, Coach Ravi Shastri and bowling coach Bharat Arun believed that they wanted to take the pitch out of the equation and play the best cricket to their ability in those 5 days irrespective of conditions and country they are playing in.

And, this thought just turned a new chapter in India’s performance in those four countries. Yes, results still eluded the men in blue but some of them started falling in their favour too.

Emergence of the Pace-attack

One big example of this change was the year 2018 where they were playing South Africa, England and Australia in space of 12 months, all of them away from home. India lost to South Africa 2-1, but not before cranking up some pace. India took all 60 South African wickets in the three-match series, out of which 50 were taken by pacers alone. So much so that, India didn’t even play a spinner in the final game in Johannesburg and that was the only game of the series that they won.

Even though, they didn’t have great tour of England and lost that series by 4-1, but the promise was only growing. And, it finally bore fruit when India shocked Australia at their home soil by beating them 2-1. And, trio of Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami starred again. It looked like their were destroying timbers for fun. While Ishant was taking wickets with the new ball, Shami was making the second innings his own, taking five wickets in second innings left, right and centre. And, Bumrah needs no introduction, he’s just the workhorse kind of bowler, the X-factor that India was looking for, something that Neil Wagner does for New Zealand day-in and day-out.

‘We Hunt in Pairs’

Each of Ishant, Bumrah and Shami have taken 50-plus wickets each in test matches since 2018. And in this period, not just in away test matches, at home too, against South Africa, Bangladesh, the pacers have given breakthroughs whenever the team required. It wasn’t like before where the captain had to look for options when the spinners weren’t getting the required purchase from the wicket.

In a recent interview for BCCI.tv, talking about the pace attack, Shami said that the secret of their success lies in each other’s strengths. “There’s a healthy competition amongst ourselves, we have managed to pick 20 wickets almost on all our away tours and even at home in the Freedom Trophy (vs South Africa) or the pink-ball game against Bangladesh, our fast bowling group was effective. We don’t have a rivalry, we hunt in pairs.”

The last line by Shami makes sense and perfectly sums up this group’s success in the last 2-3 years. Generally, in test matches, the quality bowling line-ups are those which have one effective bowler after another and not just one or two, whom the captains have to bring into the attack again and again to provide them the breakthrough. But, all three of them or whenever Umesh Yadav plays, they all become dangerous as they like their coach said, have taken the piches out of the equation and keep bowling in good areas consistently and have reaped rewards for it.

The Test against Australia

Now, India returns Down Under after two years and faces a team similar to theirs in a month’s time.

With the likes of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon in the ranks, Australia have an equally fearsome bowling attack and with Steve Smith, David Warner back and unearthing a gem in Marnus Labuschagne, Australia look as good a test side as any in the world. And, it will be difficult for India to replicate their 2018 success.

However, experts and cricket pundits believe India have a chance against Aussies not because of batting but due to their bowing attack. How about that?

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