As Jasprit Bumrah dismantled England’s line-up in the second innings at Nottingham, a hushed murmur went out. “I have heard that there is a green-top prepared at Southampton for the fourth Test,” said someone, trying not to be too loud.

The words carried though, for the press box at Trent Bridge is no bigger than a living room. “Why would they give Indian pacers a green-top after this loss?” came the retort from some part of that living room-type setting. Never mind what direction that non-conversation took, it made for some wonderment. Why indeed?

It has been a long tour, and with two Tests remaining, this journey is starting to wind down. Even so, walking into the Rose Bowl on Monday, as the Indian team arrived in Southampton and got down to business after four days’ off, you got the feeling that they are just getting started.

Of course, taking one furtive look at the pitch – even 72 hours before the game – and you could say out loud, “Green!”

Conducive conditions

Of the 46 wickets taken by Indian bowlers, 38 have gone to pacers in three Tests. English pacers have taken 49 wickets with an additional innings and almost unfair advantage at Lord’s. Yet, the general consensus after that Indian defeat was India’s pacers could inflict similar damage. Arguably, they did – conditions at Nottingham were far better than at Lord’s.

India’s performance in that third Test revealed a lot about how they have bowled through the series. Ishant Sharma is enjoying his role as leader of the attack. Mohammed Shami is on a path of self-rediscovery, and with every passing spell, is slowly regaining his form as India’s most lethal Test bowler. Even if sitting mostly on the sidelines, Umesh Yadav showcased enough at Birmingham why he should be given more opportunities. And Jasprit Bumrah, well, he has been nothing short of a revelation.

Then, there is Hardik Pandya. Make no mistake India got their selection wrong at Lord’s, with both captain and coach admitted to it. Alternately, it’s as if they took personal offence at this confession, as did Pandya that he was not deemed good enough to be the third seamer. The desire to progress is seen most in him – single-handedly obliterating England in the first innings at Trent Bridge.

It is mirrored in Ishant’s desire to come round the wicket immediately, working angles against England’s left-handers, changing his previously dour approach. In Shami’s desire, to bowl long spells even when conditions are averse, and wickets are just not coming. In Bumrah’s yearning, to get match fit by simply bowling in the nets, and brushing off two months’ rust in a single innings. In Yadav and Shardul Thakur, honing their skills in the background, staying sharp and ever ready. This is a pack of fast bowlers, unlike any seen before in Indian cricket.

They know it, you know it, and everyone else knows it.

“Pandya plus three proper fast bowlers in the same eleven? It is a blessing for India. It has never happened before in any Indian team which I have seen or played in,” said Harbhajan Singh, after the Nottingham Test.

Singh provides an easy reference point. In an otherwise stellar career, he played Test cricket in England only once – 2002. In that four-match series, India used Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, Ashish Nehra and Sanjay Bangar, totalling 28 wickets, a comparatively paltry return to 2018. Prior to that tour though, India’s pace attack –Javagal Srinath, Khan, Nehra and Bangar took 41 wickets in five Tests in the West Indies (2002).

If you traverse India’s overseas cricket history, 40 is the magical mark. When Indian pacers do hit that figure away from home, you know it is a good tour. It is seen in how this 40-marker appears so rarely when you look up the statistics. Ever since India started playing overseas Test cricket in 1932, their pacers first breached this figure in 1986 – 41 wickets as Kapil Dev’s side won 2-0. Surprisingly the skipper only took 10 of them, with Chetan Sharma (16) and Roger Binny (12) doing the bulk of damage.

In 86 years’ of Test cricket, India’s pacers have hit this 40-mark* only on seven other occasions (eight overall):

  • 57 wickets in Australia (1991-92) losing the five-match series 1-0 with Kapil Dev taking 25 wickets.
  • 41 wickets in South Africa (1996-97) losing the three-match series 2-0 with Javagal Srinath taking 18 wickets. 
  • 41 in West Indies (2002) losing the five-match series 2-1 with Srinath taking 13, Khan 15 and Nehra 12 wickets. 
  • 41 in England (2007) winning the three-match series 1-0 with Khan taking 18 wickets.
  • 45 in England (2014) losing the five-match series 3-1 with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma taking 19 wickets each. 
  • 41 in Australia (2014-15) losing the four-match series 2-0 with Mohammed Shami taking 15 wickets, Umesh Yadav 11 and Ishant 10.
  • 50 in South Africa (2018) losing the three-match series 2-1 with Shami taking 15, Jasprit Bumrah 14, Kumar 10 and Ishant 8.

The pattern is quite discernable herein, especially with India on the verge of hitting that 40-mark again in this current series (only for the ninth time). Yet, unlike the earlier instances dominated by singular names, the names are starting to get repetitive. It isn’t just about Dev, Srinath or Khan alone, left to shoulder the burden of India’s hopes whilst average bowlers played second fiddle.

India’s current attack has come together piece by piece, and Shami’s growth herein is a perfect example. During the last tour of England (2014), he played three Tests and picked only five wickets, but doubled that on the tour of Australia later that year. The underlying point is that over the past four years, he has gone from strength to strength, becoming a vital ingredient of this fast bowling mix.

It is akin to how Ishant has grown in his lead role, and is starting to enjoy his position in this group, how Kumar and Yadav are plugging away (when fit and afforded opportunity), and how Bumrah has stepped up from limited-overs’ cricket to Tests. The common thread among all is that each of them can move the ball – both new and old – at pace.

Quicker than English pacers

“Statistically, Indian pacers have bowled quicker than English pacers in this series. They are well built, strong like fast bowlers are supposed to be, and completely professional in how they manage themselves. I don’t recall when I last saw an Indian attack with more than one pacer, and particularly not like this,” said England’s spin consultant Saqlain Mushtaq.

His other identity is former Pakistan spinner –a nation that for long was a factory of fast bowlers while Indian cricket could only watch in awe as the likes of Dev, Srinath and Khan were wrapped in cotton to prevent injuries. Coming from Mushtaq, this is the greatest compliment yet for India’s current wealth of fast bowling resources.

England don’t need to win either of the remaining matches to seal this series. They can afford to draw both at Southampton and the Oval, and you wonder if they thought about rolling out high-scoring flat tracks. It would blunt their bowling as well as the Indian attack.

By laying out a green-top, the ball is in India’s court. They need to win both remaining games to stage a turn-around not seen since 1936-37 and it starts with the green-top here – their best chance of taking 20 wickets. “We will definitely get a result here, and I think it will be a good result,” said Shami on Tuesday, pumped at how their bowling unit has been talked up over the past week.

Best Indian attack? To quote Ravi Shastri, “Easily!” But can they deliver a dramatic series win?

*Statistics by Umang Pabari