April 11, 2020
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The Fast And Furious

With a surfeit of pacers blossoming, Gujarat resurrects a long-gone tradition

The Fast And Furious
Pradeep Mandhani
The Fast And Furious
Mahatma Gandhi may have been the apostle of non-violence, but even as he was struggling for India's independence, a man from his own region, Amar Singh, was terrorising English batsmen with his pace. Amar Singh wasn't just a lethal speedster, pairing up with the deadly Mohammed Nissar when India became a Test nation in 1932, but also a hard-hitting batsman. Tragically, he died aged 30. His brother, L. Ramji, a big man with typical fast bowler's aggression, was also a formidable speedster, known to generate lightning speed on the slowest of pitches. Sledging wasn't unusual for him too, and he had no qualms about packing his overs with bouncers and beamers wreaking mayhem. He even had the gall to fell the Maharaja of Patiala—who called the shots in Indian cricket then—in his own backyard. No wonder then that Ramji played only one Test.

But since Amar Singh played his last Test, no fast bowler from Gujarat, the only state that fields three teams—Baroda, Saurashtra and, of course, Gujarat—in the Ranji Trophy, has been an India regular, except for Karsan Ghavri. Other than Kapil Dev's long-time opening partner, there has only been Rashid Patel, who played a Test and an odi against New Zealand in 1988.

Things are changing though. It's as if suddenly there's a fast bowling revolution on in Gujarat with all three aforesaid teams claiming to have at least one pace bowler in their ranks promising enough to deserve the India blazer. Three of them also won encomia from pace god Dennis Lillee during their stint at the mrf Pace Foundation in Chennai. Baroda, of course, is ahead of Gujarat and Saurashtra in this regard. Zaheer Khan has come a long way since he migrated to Baroda for want of opportunities in Maharashtra and Mumbai. Not only does he spearhead the Indian attack now but is also an inspiring presence for Baroda's other speed aspirants.

Foremost among whom is Irfan Khan Pathan, who turned 19 last month, the toast of the nation after taking a world-record nine wickets for 16 runs in an Under-19 Asia Cup match against Bangladesh. Hardly surprising then that he is in the Test team for the Australia tour.

Pathan idolises Wasim Akram, and has moulded his bowling on him. Like Akram, Pathan can swing the old cherry just as crazily as he does the new one. "I've seen Irfan bowl and I think he's a very good prospect. If he approaches me, I can certainly help him," said Akram in Ahmedabad recently. This may come true sooner than later as Akram is the bcci's and Indian skipper Saurav Ganguly's choice for Indian bowling coach. "He's a strong lad. I like his ability to swing the old ball. He has a good outswinger but needs to work on his inswinger," feels Rashid Patel, a key force behind Irfan's development.

The 6' 5" southpaw with a beautiful side-on action has already played for the India Under-15 and Under-19 sides, including at the World Cup, as also the India A team. He was among the 12 lads picked by Lillee for special training two years ago. "He seems to have the potential to blossom into a talented fast bowler," said Lillee. "Irfan bowled exceptionally well," was coach Robin Singh's thoughts after his outstanding performances for the Under-19 team in England last year. "He's a thinking bowler who bowls to a plan."

Rakesh Patel, a 24-year-old right-arm medium-pacer from a tiny village near Surat, is another Baroda player who's been in the reckoning for a while now. Like Irfan, he has represented India in various age-group tournaments, and impressed. He joined Saurav Ganguly's team in New Zealand for the odis last year, but didn't get to play. He was also among the World Cup probables, but didn't make the squad.

In the match between the Board President's XI and Australia in Delhi in 2001, though Rakesh conceded 113 runs in his 22 overs, he was the only one to keep a rampaging Steve Waugh on a leash. Rakesh eventually got Waugh and even received a hurried but hearty "well bowled" from the Aussie captain. He has bowled several matchwinning spells in first-class cricket (111 wickets at 33.40 so far) and has scalped some of India's top batsmen, including Sachin Tendulkar.

Twenty-year-old Munaf Patel, who burst upon the scene a few months ago with his blistering pace, may have decided to play for Mumbai in his first Ranji season, but there's no denying he is a pucca Gujarati, hailing from a nondescript hamlet, Ikhar, near Bharuch. The tall, strapping Munaf was someone Lillee singled out for special praise; he is said to have regularly clocked 140-150 kph when training under the Aussie legend.

Though not among the 36 probables for the recent series against New Zealand and Australia, the bcci did invite Munaf to bowl at the conditioning camp in Bangalore. He played for India A against the Kiwis at Rajkot—even before making his Ranji debut. And made quite an impression, removing Stephen Fleming, Scott Styris and Nathan Astle in the first innings. He claimed two more victims in the second innings to reduce the Kiwis to 68-4. All this when he's just starting his first-class career.

Long before Munaf was national news, Siddharth Trivedi, the 20-year-old right-arm fast-medium bowler from Ahmedabad, was spoken of highly by those whose comments count in Indian cricket, like Dilip Vengsarkar, Anshuman Gaekwad and Roger Binny. Siddharth is quick, accurate and moves the ball both ways. He was selected for India's pace factory in Chennai when barely 16, and has gone on to a first-class career marked by some devastating spells. He played a pivotal role in the Elite 'C' team winning the Duleep Trophy last season. Siddharth too was in the Under-19 World Cup side last year, followed by a series in England, and also figured in the India B side in the D/N Challenger Series in Bangalore at the start of the current season.

He's also had a five-week stint at the Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy in Australia under the Border-Gavaskar scholarship programme. Observed Damien Fleming, a master of cut and swing, who trained Siddharth in Adelaide: "He's already quite fast and could be a yard quicker in a couple of years. Siddharth's also willing to learn and improve the few shortcomings in his bowling. He has the potential to be a world-class bowler."

Finally, there is Jolly Jobanputra from Rajkot, a left-hander who is a jolly good fellow on and off the field. The 21-year-old Saurashtra speedster had impressed both Lillee and T.A. Sekhar during his mrf stint in 1998-99. "You have stamina and attitude. If you continue to work hard and don't get carried away by success, you'll definitely progress," Lillee had advised. "Don't lose heart with the occasional bouts of failure and injury. A fast bowler has to live with them." Lillee's words have stood Jobanputra in good stead since he graduated to senior-level cricket in 2000. He makes judicious use of his six-feet, well-developed frame and long arms. Where Lillee has helped is improvements in the run-up, action and follow-through. He says his forte is bowling effectively with the old ball. Though the outswinger is his main weapon, he does make the ball reverse swing at times. Like Irfan, he hero-worships Akram. With nearly 25 wickets in five matches against heavy odds—in terms of different conditions and pitches, lack of support from fielders and want of big scores to bowl with—Jolly was Saurashtra's most successful bowler last season. He was superb against Goa when he claimed 7-83 in the first innings on a spin-friendly Rajkot wicket, becoming the first Saurashtra seamer in many years to take five wickets in an innings at home.

With so many bowlers in the wings, it indeed looks like there's a fondness for fast bowling in this part of India. They also have history, tradition and legacy to derive inspiration from. An event earlier this month underlines the aspirations of the state's young cricketers. They turned up in droves at the Sardar Patel Gujarat stadium in Motera to chance their arms during the two-day Ahmedabad leg of the Scorpio Speedster Hunt for India's fastest bowler. It looks like Gandhiji's home state could be the next lethal weapon in India's cricket armoury.
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