They are usually the biggest men on a cricket field. When they are doing their jobs properly, it makes for spectacular theatre. New ball in hand, four slips waiting at the far end, a fast bowler gathering momentum from his long run, driving through the crease and straining every sinew in his body in an explosive action to send down a thunderbolt is one of cricket’s greatest sights. The snarling that follows is merely an added bonus. Fast bowlers, cricket’s hardest working athletes, rarely ever go unnoticed.
Yet, in this India-Australia Test series, it is not only the wickets chart that has been dominated by the spinners. With pitches being the cynosure of all eyes, even though the two Tests played so far have been nothing short of riveting, the work put in by the fast bowlers has gone largely unappreciated.
On turning tracks, one pitch rated “poor” by the International Cricket Council and the second one “below average”, it should surprise nobody that the only bowlers with double-digit figures in the wickets column are spinners. And, to be fair to Nathan Lyon and R Ashwin, Steve O’ Keefe and Ravindra Jadeja, they have knifed through the opposition batting with such skill and precision, each dominating on a different occasion, that there was little room to look elsewhere.
But this is not to say that Mitchell Starc contributed any less to Australia’s 333-run win in Pune. Apart from pushing batsmen onto the back foot with his sheer pace, it was Starc who got one to take off from a length to knock Cheteshwar Pujara over, following that up by snaring Virat Kohli for a duck.
The upside for Australia from the two batting collapses from India was that they bowled only 74 overs across two innings. This meant that Starc and Josh Hazlewood, who have shouldered a massive share of Australia’s bowling burden in the last year, did not have their stout legs pushed too much.
Coming into the Bengaluru Test, Steven Smith, Australia’s captain, did not stop for a moment when asked if Australia had decided on their combination. “Same side,” said Smith, and why not, with Australia doing practically everything right in Pune?
In the first innings in Bengaluru, it was Lyon all the way, with 8/50, but Starc had held the door open courtesy of a well-trained bell-hop at a five-star hotel, nailing Abhinav Mukund in front of the crease with a yorker.
In the second innings, on a pitch that was affording less sharp turn than earlier, but much more variable bounce, the heavy lifting was done by Hazlewood. Although there are those who believe the Indian speed guns have flattered this metronome who relies more on lift than pace to beat batsmen, Hazlewood was constantly at the batsmen.
Not only was Hazlewood so accurate that he was difficult to score off, he picked up wickets constantly, and only one major partnership, between Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, allowed India to get out of the woods. From 24 overs, Hazlewood had 6/67, on a pitch that was being pilloried for being loaded too far in favour of the spinners.
The beauty of Hazlewood’s bowling lay in the his understanding of his role, his reading of the conditions and his patience in setting up batsmen. Hazlewood, unlike Starc, does not have a cannon-ball yorker or snorting bouncer. What he has is the ability to hold one line all day long, allowing the ball to do its work as it grows older, begins to reverse and perhaps even grip the surface and go one way or another.
But it was not only Australia’s quick men who held sway. With Virat Kohli bowling Jadeja far less than most would have liked, and Ashwin tiring under a workload that would have broken lesser spinners, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav stepped up.
Ishant, who is either an incredibly unlucky bowler or one still learning his trade after 76 Tests, depending on who you speak to, has only two wickets to show for a superhuman effort he put in. Bowling over the stumps and slanting the ball across Australia’s left-hand batsmen with the new ball, and coming around to reverse it away once the shine has worn off, Ishant has been able to choke the scoring rate significantly. In the first innings in Bengaluru, Ishant sent down 27 overs for only 48 runs, allowing Kohli to control the game and attack with his spinners.
n the second innings, with a small total to defend and Ishant leaking runs, it was Umesh who picked up the slack. Umesh is another bowler a captain would like to use in short bursts, but Kohli has had to ask his quick men to put in the long spells from time to time, and the response has been heartening.
After conceding nine runs off his first over – and this included a thick edge through slip four four that Kohli should have caught – Umesh pulled things back beautifully, giving away only four runs off his next three overs, picking up the wickets of Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith in the process.
The headlines in Ranchi, where the third Test begins on Thursday, may go to the spinners once more, but both teams will know that they could not have got this far without the work their quick bowlers have put in, turners or no turners.
(This article first appeared on the Scroll website on March 15, 2017)