In the recently-concluded One-Day International series against Australia, the Indian team was held back by an age-old problem – the lack of a fast bowling all-rounder. Virat Kohli and Co went down 1-2 in the three-match series and a glaring weakness throughout was the absence of a player who could bowl pace and also be counted on with the bat.

With Hardik Pandya’s rise in international cricket over the past years, India had a player who lent balance to the side with his all-round skills. But the 27-year-old is yet to fully recover from the back injury he sustained last year and can’t contribute much with the ball at the moment. This has exposed, yet again, the dearth in high-quality fast bowling all-rounders in India.

While playing in the subcontinent, the absence of a genuine all-rounder hardly ever hurts India. The pitches tend to offer turn and the team gets away by utilising all the spin-bowling options at its disposal. It is in countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England where India often struggles to field a balanced side.

Take the victorious 2011 World Cup campaign for instance. India had the likes Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina to make up the sixth bowling option. If any of the five main bowlers had an off day, these other part-time spinners proved to be more than handy. In fact, in many of the games, Yuvraj, a top-six batter, bowled his entire quota of ten overs. This gave skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni tremendous flexibility.

But while having this long tail is a possibility in the subcontinent, we have seen India struggle time and again in other countries where fielding a number of spin-bowling options isn’t productive. The team lacks a genuine fast bowling all-rounder, who can hold his own as a fifth bowler, which hampers the composition of the playing XI.

This, of course, is by no means a new challenge for Indian cricket. Apart from the great Kapil Dev perhaps, India have never had a player who can pose an equal threat with both bat and ball consistently.

To understand why India struggles to put forth world class fast bowling all-rounders, spoke with Abhishek Nayar, assistant coach of the Kolkata Knight Riders and a former Mumbai all-rounder, Jatin Paranjpe, former India selector, and MSK Prasad, former chairman of India’s senior selection committee.

Here’s what they had to say:

Abhishek Nayar: “You need to identify talents at the grassroot level. First and foremost, to be a pace bowling all-rounder you need to be extremely fit. You need to get your bio-mechanics right very early in your career. A lot of the fast bowlers, because their bio-mechanics aren’t right, can’t sustain the grind of even age-group cricket. If you compare the structures of age-group cricket abroad and in India, you’ll find that a lot of the fast bowling all-rounders in India bowl too much from a young age. And that stunts their growth, because after a while they can’t bowl quick. We’ve had a lot of all-rounders like me who can bowl at around 120 kmph, but not many who can operate consistently at around 135-140.

We need to focus on how players go through age-group cricket, how their bodies are looked after. We need to ensure they are technically sound to bowl at those high speeds and then train them accordingly. There needs to be a very scientific approach to it. We have always waited for players to come along so that we can turn them into all-rounders. It doesn’t work like that. You don’t often get bowlers who can bowl quick and if you do, they don’t bat. We should work the other way around: find players who can bowl quick and then develop them into decent batsmen. We need to identify such players early and then work on them consistently.

If you look at a long-term goal like a four-year period, you can train their batting to a level where they can hit sixes when required batting at No 7. I’m sure over a period of time, batting is something you can develop to a certain level. Obviously, you can’t become an out-and-out all-rounder but you can always be someone who can chip in. So if you have four bowlers who can chip in with the bat, you automatically have a strong lower order. I don’t think it’s very complicated. Bowling quick is a very natural skill, you can’t develop it. You can either bowl quick or you can’t. If you’re not a natural fast bowler then at best, you can bowl quick for a brief period in your career but not for longer.

I don’t think the conditions in India can be blamed for the dearth in fast bowling all-rounders. The pitches in India these days aren’t really spinner-friendly, the pacers can get a lot out of them. The cricket culture in the country has changed over the years and you find a lot of fast bowlers going around. Bowling at 140 kmph is a normal phenomenon now in India, which was hardly the case earlier.

You can’t always get natural all-rounders, sometimes you have to develop them. I think in India, we have been very lucky in terms of getting natural talent. But when it comes to developing talent, it’s a completely different ball-game.

Jatin Paranjpe: The term all-rounder is used a little too loosely these days. I would like to term them either batsmen who can bowl or bowlers who can bat. An all-rounder is somebody who can hold his place in the team purely as a batsman or bowler. In India, we, unfortunately, don’t have many top-quality fast bowling all-rounders. The irony is that in domestic cricket, you will find many batsmen who can bowl or bowlers who can bat, but they are of the slow bowling variety. Because Indian pitches are such that a team usually needs more spinners than pacers.

In the T20 format, which is becoming increasingly popular, you are evaluated in all three departments. So I think the culture of players working consciously to develop all three skills needs to be nurtured from a young age. It is a cycle of evolution, it will take time for these things to happen. In places like England and Australia, you have more seam-bowling all-rounders because the pitches are such. In India, it’s the other way around because the pitches here are spinner-friendly.

The pitches in India dictate that you need more spin-bowling options in your team, which leads to more such all-rounders. I think it all comes down to the coaches. It’s all about getting a player to improve in the other department by 20-25% to make them a valuable package. It depends on the coaches at the age-group level to spot batsmen who can also bowl and then improve those players’ bowling by 20-25% year on year.

Identifying natural fast bowlers and working on their batting is definitely one approach, but the issue with that is that we need a fast bowler who can bat in the top six. We don’t need a No 10 or 9 to develop into a No 8. That’s not the challenge. We are trying to find someone who can bat in the top six and also bowl seam-up. That’s a bigger advantage than having a bowler who can bat. Because you can’t play four bowlers and then a bowler who can bat. You have to play five bowlers and then a batsman who can bowl.

MSK Prasad: “Wanting to be an all-rounder has to come from within. Just because there’s an opportunity arising somewhere at the top, players can’t be thinking they’ll start working towards that direction. If you want to be a proper fast-bowling all-rounder, you have to be bowling at least 15-20 overs in a day in the Ranji Trophy. You can’t bowl just five-six overs and expect to be called an all-rounder.

If you see players like Garfield Sobers, Kapil Dev, Jacques Kallis or Ben Stokes, they are as good in batting as well as in bowling. That comes from the start of one’s career, it can’t happen overnight. If one has to bowl at good speeds consistently, they have to bowl plenty of overs at the domestic level.

If you look at the cricketing culture in general, players are given labels from a young age. You’re either a batsman or a bowler. If they are good at one skill then hardly any attention is given to the aspects. If they prefer batting, they won’t be given much bowling in the nets, and vice versa. The mindset is so closed. And what then happens is that if a player is trained in only one aspect of the game, he/she eventually loses interest in the other aspect. So a player should be developed completely.

Even if they come in at the start as either a batsman or bowler, they should also be given an equal amount of training to develop the other skill. In the process, as they grow up, they may end up becoming good in both departments. There should be no restrictions in the nets, no labeling. Every player should be groomed as an all-rounder right from the start. Then once they become professionals, they can choose themselves whether they are batting or bowling all-rounders. This way you can ensure that all players growing up will have a strong base in each department.

I think the conditions in India are much better now. The strength levels are also much better. It’s only the branding of players that is done from a young age which restricts them. That thought process has to change.

Need of the hour

The aforementioned suggestions by Nayar, Paranjpe and Prasad all hold merit.

Taking naturally athletic fast bowlers and working on their batting can be a long-term solution since there will be less chances of players breaking down over time. On the other hand, having proper batsmen improve their pace bowling skills will probably bring more balance to the team. Also, as Prasad said, training youngsters equally in batting and bowling will lead to a bigger pool of all-rounders in the future.

However, what’s apparent from these assessments is that there is no one clear way to go about this. For the Indian team to have fast bowling all-rounders come up regularly, there are three key issues that need to be addressed.

Firstly, despite the gradual change in nature of the pitches in India, a lot more needs to be done in terms of providing an incentive to youngsters for picking up pace bowling. We may be seeing an increasing number of lively pitches at the first-class level but that also needs to be the case when it comes to maidaans and other local grounds – places where kids get introduced to the game and set out on their journeys.

Secondly, cricket clubs in the country must sincerely devote themselves in nurturing pace bowling all-rounders. What tends to happen is that coaches invest more of their time and energy in nurturing one skill of each youngster so that there are more chances of them climbing through the ranks. There seems to be a culture in which young players are trained to achieve 100% efficiency in one skill. For there to be more genuine all-rounders, there should rather be a culture in which players are told it’s okay to be 60-70% efficient in each of the two skills. Youngsters need to know how beneficial players who can contribute with both bat and ball are to a team.

And lastly, it is the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s responsibility to pick a strategy and stick by it for a few years at least. There needs to be a systemic change for any real results to show. The board must decide on a clear plan for how to bring up more pace bowling all-rounders and then ensure that plan is implemented at the state level.

There needs to be a change in the cricketing culture in the country and the onus is on the BCCI to drive that change forward.