“I know he has line and lengths to do that, but obviously, back-to-back overs in a Test match? I am not a hundred percent sure.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement from his IPL captain, but Thangarasu Natarajan wouldn’t expect Australia opener David Warner to boost his credentials at a time when a series is on the line. Warner’s statement takes a dig at the chink in India’s armour; a bowling attack in crisis. No Ishant Sharma, no Mohammad Shami, no Umesh Yadav and no Bhuvneshwar Kumar—five years ago that would have spelt disaster but India are no longer the beleaguered tourists flying in replacements who would be overwhelmed by the overnight change in settings. Instead, this is a team with a proper bench; even if the backup bowlers have almost no Test experience between them, they have been shaped and hardened over several preparatory tours.
As the attack proved in Melbourne, even the debutants bowl with sting. So much so, that it is easy to forget that Jasprit Bumrah, transforming seamlessly from being third pick to leader of the pace battery, has just three years of Test experience. Once considered a defensive option on overseas tours, Ravichandran Ashwin will complement Bumrah with his guile and craft. Add Mohammed Siraj’s raw energy and Ravindra Jadeja’s multi-utility skills and India remain a potent bowling attack despite the setbacks. There remains just one question to answer before the third Test: who will be the fifth bowler?
“You have to play two spinners at Sydney,” said Subroto Banerjee, former India bowler, mentor of Yadav and Kumar and one of the few Indians to have coached in Australia for nearly a decade. “And I believe India have three good options in Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur and T Natarajan.” Thakur is the only bowler with Test experience, having played just one match against West Indies in Hyderabad in 2018. Saini’s height is an advantage but the two ODIs he got to play this tour didn’t really play out well for him (1/83 and 0/70). In first-class cricket, however, he is in a different league altogether and his haul of 3/19 in the first innings of the practice match against Australia A last month may give him an edge. Natarajan though is the underdog story everyone is rooting for. Like Warner, Banerjee believes Natarajan’s length bowling will matter. “He has very good control over the lengths he wants to hit. And it’s not as if he has not bowled in red-ball cricket,” said Banerjee.
The real win here is India not being reduced into an indecisive bunch in the face of injuries to their first pick of fast bowlers. Times have changed too for fast bowlers who had domestic success and waited in the wings for an international run. From Dodda Ganesh to Tinu Yohannan, Ranadeb Bose, R Vinay Kumar and Jaydev Unadkat, we have had quite a few pacers hanging on for a few matches or be summarily dropped after a few series. Two things have brought an end to that. Top bowlers are now managed better than ever. With spinners out-bowling pacers at home in Tests (1.7 times more wickets in the last five years), fast bowlers get more respite from duty in India. The best example is Shami, who has just played 16 Tests at home as opposed to 34 away. It’s quite apparent the management wants to save him for overseas tours where the turfs aren’t as cruel to pacers. Bumrah is yet to play a Test at home, despite his phenomenal performances overseas.
With Sharma, Shami, Yadav and now Bumrah being retained on overseas tours almost on a consistent basis, it has allowed the creation of a proper supply line comprising players who play ‘A’ tours when not accompanying the senior team. Siraj and Saini are products of this system. Picked early from domestic cricket, they have consistently played overseas on “A” tours. Take Thakur’s example. He is the last India fast bowler to have made a home debut (in 2018) but he has been touring with the senior team since 2016. Thakur’s first ‘A’ tour came in 2014, just two years into his domestic career. Saini has been with the senior team since the 2018 tour of South Africa where he was the nets bowler. Not too many chances have come his way but Saini knows how it feels to be part of a senior dressing room and what it takes to bowl on pitches across the cricketing world. On this tour, Natarajan and Kartik Tyagi are the newest fast bowlers to be brooded into this exposure system.
“It’s also about planning the opportunities,” said Banerjee who till last year was the bowling coach of the U-19 team helmed by Rahul Dravid. “I think the A tours and IPL have helped the younger bowlers gain a lot of exposure. Look at how Kartik Tyagi has evolved. He was in the U-19 squad on tours of England, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in 2019. Then he played the U-19 World Cup last year before travelling to the UAE for the IPL (for Rajasthan Royals). From there he joined the senior squad in Australia and even featured in the warm-up game against Australia A. That’s a very high level of cricket for a very long time. And that’s bound to improve your skills.”
By the looks of it, the current situation with first-choice bowlers could continue into the February-March home Test series against England as well.
“Given the time frame, Shami looks doubtful. I don’t think Bhuvneshwar can play too. He is at the NCA and they won’t rush him. The Sydney Test could be an opportunity for a young bowler now,” said Banerjee.
Going by the hierarchy, Thakur or Saini should be picked in Sydney. Natarajan though offers a tempting alternative; if he is picked, he would be the first left-arm seamer to play a Test for India since Zaheer Khan in 2014. Natarajan is nearly 30. We know he possesses good variations and a freakishly accurate yorker. What we don’t know is if he can endure the rigours of Test cricket. It is good to remember Bumrah’s debut then in Cape Town three years ago; back then, he too was just a shorter formats bowler.