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The secret weapons of a fast-bowling nation

There is an odd if uplifting thread that binds many of India’s current fast bowlers — they did not come up through India’s vast domestic cricket system in any meaningful way. They were discovered, in some ways, accidentally.

Mohammed Siraj made his debut in Melbourne in a brilliant win for India on the tour of Australia and picked up five wickets at an average of 15.4. On Day 1 of the third Test in Sydney, he steamed in and led India’s first breakthrough. Bowling alongside Jasprit Bumrah, one of the finest pacers in cricket right now, he looks every bit like he belongs there.

But the first time he held a real cricket ball was just five years ago. He was 20. A friend who knew his fiery reputation with the tennis ball on dusty grounds insisted he try the real thing, at a Hyderabad club game. He did so well that he was immediately inducted into the Hyderabad under-23 team. Two years later, he was in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Three more years, and he is in India whites.

Bumrah has been so lethal with the ball on the international stage that it’s easy to forget that he is no veteran either. He is only in his fourth year of Test cricket. For most of his formative years, he played with a rubber ball too, practising yorkers in the corridor outside his Ahmedabad house, in a middle-class apartment complex of leaking pipes and peeling paint, where he was raised by a single mother.

He was spotted by former India coach and Mumbai Indians chief scout John Wright when he was 18, and had just started playing for his state.

Navdeep Saini, who made his debut in the Sydney Test, was spotted by then Delhi captain Gautam Gambhir in 2013 (coincidentally, the same year Wright first spotted Bumrah).

Saini was toiling away as a net bowler for Delhi’s Ranji side, and Gambhir had to wage war against the state’s cricket administration to get him onto the team. The problem was that Saini was an unknown; he had been spotted at a tennis ball match by another Delhi bowler and brought to the nets as someone with promise.

There is another one like them waiting in the wings: Thangarasu Natarajan, whose rapid rise — from tennis ball cricketer to IPL to the India team — I wrote about in an earlier column.

These are self-taught cricketers, boys who picked up a ball and start tinkering, with a fantasy to bowl quick and hard and make wickets fly.

In an interview a year ago, Bumrah told me the first stint he had with an actual coach, before he turned professional, was at a camp at school. “All my cricket I’ve learned from the TV,” he said.

Why is it that the domestic grind does not produce our best fast bowlers? Partly it has to do with the dry, dusty, slow and low-bouncing pitches that are usually on offer in those circuits. It makes being a fast bowler very hard. Though I am yet to wrap my head around why a bowler such as Jaydev Unadkat, who habitually runs through batting orders in the Ranji Trophy, does not make the cut for international cricket.

Yet, that’s how it is — our fast bowlers are fortuitous finds.

It’s what happens to them once they are discovered that’s been key to India’s rise as a fast-bowling nation. They find themselves in the IPL, playing alongside and against top cricketers from around the world and being trained by some of the world’s best coaches.

If they are of a certain age, they get to go through the astute under-19 system put in place by Rahul Dravid. They go on “exposure” tours — a practice that began about years ago, of including promising pacers as net bowlers on tours. Here, they get to be part of the dressing room and get a chance to play in warm-up games. They experience better fast-bowling environments than India’s pitches.

Siraj played in both warm-up games on this tour before he stepped in to replace the injured Mohammed Shami. Natarajan was part of the net bowling unit before he was named in the squad in place of the injured Umesh Yadav. Saini was taken to England during the 2019 World Cup as a net bowler.

Right now, a fiery fast bowler called Kartik Tyagi is in Australia to help India in the nets. He just turned 20; it would not be surprising if he made his debut for India before this year is out.

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