The setting sun is painting the sky with the kind of pink tinge that reminds one of the Day-Night Test at the Adelaide Oval. This isn’t Adelaide, but it’s a ground in New Zealand where the pitches have a little more zip than the subcontinent. The lights are on and the evening chill has replaced the southern hemisphere’s January summer. It’s India versus Australia, and one side’s fast bowlers are haranguing the other.
First ball of a new spell, in comes the bowler. It’s quick, and on the spot, and beats the batter driving on the back foot just outside off.
Second ball, same line, but even better. Draws the batter forward, then kicks just a bit off the seam and beats the outside edge again. 143 kph says the speed gun. No run.
Third ball, same area, the ball races off the angled bat, but straight to point. Dot ball. The run rate climbs, the tension thickens.
Fourth ball, a typically Australian delivery, lifting from back of a length, the batter ducks out of the way. 145 on the scoreboard, the bowler’s speed that is, not the score.
Fifth ball, full, fast and whizzes past the off stump. The batter has backed away to make room, a good idea considering the speed is 145 again. Misses it. Pressure coagulates as the over ripens.
Sixth ball, full again, more width, and the batter’s hands swing, searching for the boundary that will dissolve the pressure. But he is late to get forward, and though committed to the shot, ends up nicking the sucker ball to the keeper.
A well-planned wicket maiden. It’s a typically Australian over, boa constrictor pressure followed by the fatal cobra bite. Except for one, teeny, tiny detail.
The bowler is Indian.
When India won the toss and elected to bat at Mt Maunganui, it was understood that the opening batters would have to give the first hour to the bowlers. Fast bowling is to Australia what the haka is to New Zealand: action and identity and intimidation all rolled into one. With two new balls and first use of the pitch, there was a sense of trepidation in the afternoon as India’s diminutive captain and his opening partner walked to the crease.
Instead, the opening spell was anti-climactic. It was like expecting the fierce All Blacks but seeing the much more agreeable Black Caps, one of the few Kiwi teams who don’t perform the haka. No disrespect meant to the Black Caps or the Australian fast bowlers, but Xavier Bartlett and Jason Ralston found mostly the middle of the bat, not the edges, and once Prithvi Shaw and Manjot Kalra had gotten their eye in, the ball quickly found the rope.
On an unforgiving batting track, Bartlett bowled in the 120-125 kph range, and Ralston in the 130s, which didn’t trouble the Indians. The first six came as early as the seventh over when Shaw lofted a full delivery from Bartlett clear over mid on.
In contrast, when India bowled, the picture was a lot scarier. Unlike day-night games in India, the advantage of bowling second is not as pronounced in New Zealand, as the sun is still shining strong at 6 pm when the second innings starts.
‘Bit of a surprise’
Nonetheless, the Indian fast bowlers consistently hurried the Australian openers. “It was a bit of a surprise”, said Jack Edwards, who opened the batting and top-scored for Australia with 73. “We thought spin definitely would be their strength. They were pretty sharp. I guess they bowled not only quick but also accurate, they were pretty tough to get away.”
According to the speed gun, the Indian bowlers were bowling in excess of 140 kph, and it certainly seemed close to that. The Australians were looking to score by throwing their bats at any width or errors in length, but when the bowlers hit the right area they weren’t just containing, they were attacking.
Even though Shaw dispensed with the slips as early as the seventh over, correctly reading that there was no movement in the pitch, the Indian bowlers didn’t go on the defensive. Shivam Mavi found the edge soon only for the chance to be spilled by the ’keeper. Then, Ishan Porel left the field in the 10th over, an ankle injury promising some respite for the Aussie batters. They had none. Enter Kamlesh Nagarkoti.
Right from his first over, Nagarkoti touched speeds of 145 kph. He found the first wicket, having Max Bryant caught at cover. Then in his second spell, he bowled the over that opened this article, to Austin Waugh. And for his third wicket, he knocked Will Sutherland’s off stump out of the ground with a yorker.
At the other end, Mavi took three wickets as well, the first bowled (beaten for pace), the second a bouncer top-edged to the keeper (pace again) and the third an LBW with a slower ball. At the end of the day, the pair had outbowled their Aussie counterparts in the departments of pace, accuracy and variation. If there was a measure for menace, they would have ticked that too.
Nagarkoti stands just 5’9’’ tall, and because of his shorter height, generates very good arm speed. He is a trainee at the MRF Pace Academy, but played down his bowling performance after the game. “I just worked hard on my action, didn’t try to change much”, he said. “I just wanted to remain accurate, focus on my line and length. Mostly, [bowling coach] Paras Mhambrey tells me to focus on accuracy. There is a tendency to spray the ball if you have pace. That’s what I’ve worked on.”
As the senior Indian team struggled in South Africa, Twitter exploded with the excitement of three young fast bowlers bowling 140+ in New Zealand. But there are some considerations that need to be made. Speed guns are far from standardised, and their calibrations can be different. Also, Australia’s two first-choice fast bowlers sat out with niggles, making the distance between the two teams that much more stark.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that no one thought the speed gun was inaccurate when the Australians were bowling, and since the same measure was used in the Indian innings, it lends some credence to the readings. Irrespective of the numbers, the Indian bowling attack could well be the fastest in the tournament, and perhaps the best.
For Indian fans, it will be extremely satisfying to hear what Edwards, the Aussie batter, had to say after the game: “It was a good experience facing someone that quick.”
How often does an Australian say that about an Indian?