One of the defining trends of the last ten years of cricket has been a perceptible decline in the quality of world bowling, a fact that has not only led to inflated reputations of many an ordinary batsmen but has also contributed to faster rates of scoring. I would not know exactly why we have had this dip but abridged forms of the game might be a major reason. As an example, one has to only look at Pakistan to see how they have gone from a country that produced the most explosive of bowlers (Wasim, Waqar, Safraz, Imran and even to an extent Aaqib) to one that cranks out ball-hurlers who can at best be called restrictive (Naved-ul-Hasan, Umar Gul).
In this context, the South African bowling line-up is a blast from the past—-a “no-weak-link” attack that can sustain high quality bowling over sessions, even on bowling surfaces not tailor-made for them. Watching their ceaseless barrage, I was reminded of the West Indian attack of the early 80s, especially the one that came to India in 1983 which included Marshall, Roberts, Holding, Davis and Daniels (that attack was of course far better) never more so when Dale Steyn exquisitely set-up Sachin in the first innings through a ball outside off-stump which he hits for four and then the clever follow-up which is tossed slightly further out and swinging away inducing a nick, nearly identical to the way Michael Holding outwitted Sunil Gavaskar in the second innings of the Eden Test (Sunny describes this dismissal in some detail in Runs N Ruins)
Needless to say, against this quality of bowling, the batsmen of the world’s “No 1 Test side” came unstuck. While the sight of batsman after batsman raising arms and having their stumps taken out against brilliantly directed in-dippers delivered at searing pace was predictable though embarassing what was doubly galling was to see Indian batsmen, supposedly some of the best players of spin, having trouble coping with Paul Harris’s outside-leg line. There was deja-vu here too, except that it reminded me how English and New Zealand and West Indian batsmen used to play our spinners and how they would get out not playing a shot to one that turns and bounces, bound to the crease, scratching around for overs waiting for the end to come. Paul Harris is a very good bowler but he is no Warne. Against Warne many years ago and against a similar line of attack, batsman after Indian batsman would come out of their creases and go inside-out or use their feet to “work the angles” with spectacular results. No not no more (only exception: Harbhajan in the second innings).
For the debacle of Nagpur, there is enough blame to go around. From the selectors to Gambhir to Dhoni (world’s No 1 something who I would say is lucky that he plays now, ten years ago his ‘old man poking with a stick’ technique would have been exposed much more dramatically and much more often) to even Sehwag and Sachin (neither of whom could anchor the innings in the face of a crisis). Unfortunately a lot of the vitriol will be directed at the new players (“We have seen the future and it’s not good” type denouncements) forgetting the fact that the Fab four also took some time in becoming who they ultimately became. For me the mujrims of the match were Indian bowlers who let South Africa, on a pitch on which there was enough assistance throughout, amass such a total. That South Africa would beat us in a pace faceoff is not surprising. That South Africa would have, by far, the best spinner in the game is the true shocker for those of us who love Indian cricket and this alone should put in proper perspective India’s crisis of talent.
Of course all this is just a passing cloud. Very soon we will have the Premier Mujra League getting underway in which Dhoni will hit the mickey out of Steyn, Morkel wont be able to get in a game and Harbhajan Singh will slap all and sundry with bat, ball and hand while strutting around like the super-stud that he thinks he is. “All iz well” will be the mantra once again since we wont have Test engagements for most of the year and IPL and an assortment of meaningless muqablas and mahayuddhs would have wiped the lessons of Nagpur clean from our minds.