India in search of fast-bowling all-rounder
Pathan has probably been as successful as India have been in their search for a fast-bowling all-rounder since the retirement of Kapil Dev.
When we roam around India and watch youngsters play cricket, one thing that remains common is that in every team there are four-five players who bat, bowl and also field well. They perform day in and day out as all-rounders for their team.
As they get a little older, some among those four-five players get selected for their school/college or U-16/ U-19 teams. They come under a coach; and the first thing a coach does to them is to feed their young minds with singular vision -- i.e. pick up either a bat or a ball to be successful.
Lack of inspiration
These coaches can't be blamed alone because, in India, every budding cricketer aspires to be next Tendulkar, Dravid or Kohli; there is not, for example, fast bowling all-rounder in the vicinity to look up to or to be a role model.
All these training years under professional coaches prematurely kill their all-rounder skills; incidentally, those who survive and make it to regular playing XI of team India are spinning all-rounders.
Last fast-bowling all-rounder that India had was Kapil Dev, who retired 22 years back. It's not that India didn't have fast-bowling all-rounders in these 22 years but they were bits and pieces all-rounders and utility player at best, they never reached the class of Dev.
Search in the 90s
India have flirted with many fast-bowling all-rounders in past two decades: One such option was Robin Singh. He gave his heart and soul on the field. His commitment for the team was admirable.
He dived all around the park when he fielded, he bowled his heart out and he ran between wickets as if he was running for his life; but he never looked like a player who could be a top all-rounder and his stats of 69 wickets and 2336 runs in 136 ODI matches proved the same.
In the mid-90s, there was a fad to use a lower order batsmen as a pinch-hitter. In India, Javagal Srinath was given this role: he even scored a fifty but it was an experiment that was destined to fail and no wonder it did.
Sourav Ganguly proved a better seam-bowling all-rounder than others who played for India in past two decades. He had few five-wicket hauls under his belt and also took 100 wickets in ODIs. His ball swung in the air and off the pitch as well, but his top-class batting and captaincy over-burdened him, and after a while, he stopped bowling.
Had he concentrated on his fitness and continued his bowling, he could have been an answer to India's woes of a fast-bowling all-rounder.
Another man who filled all-rounder’s void for a few years was Sachin Tendulkar. His excellence with the bat is well known but he was also called “the man with the golden arm” due to his knack for picking wickets at the right moment. He won a few matches for India with his seam-up bowling but later converted himself into a spinning all-rounder.
Recently India experimented with Stuart Binny who made his name in IPL but he could neither convince with bat nor with the ball in the few chances that he got in team India.
Hardik Pandya and Rishi Dhawan are recent additions to India's fast-bowling all-rounder list. Selection of Hardik Pandya reflects desperation on the part of the BCCI. He hardly has any domestic cricket experience but his few sparkling innings for Mumbai Indians were enough to get him team India call.
It tells you about the dearth of a fast-bowling all-rounder that India have, that it requires only a few performances to make any player eligible to be India's fast-bowling all-rounder. This move of selecting Pandya is more of a gamble than a sound decision backed by stats. Hardik may still surprise his detractors with the bat, but expecting him to perform with the ball as well, will be asking far too much from him.
This kind of selection is a quick-fix and not a long term solution. Rishi Dhawan, however, averages 40 with bat and has taken 200 plus wickets in domestic cricket. His selection looks promising but whether he'll be the answer to India’s woes, only time will tell.
One man who could have been answered this is Irfan Pathan. He made a sensational debut for India. His swing bowling made batsmen dance to his tunes until Greg Chappell tried to convert him into an all-rounder. He started well with the bat but the pressure of becoming an all-rounder took a toll on his bowling -- which was his USP.
No wonder he could not cement his place in team India and, in search of an all-rounder, India lost a fast bowler who could have taken forward the legacy of Zaheer Khan, Srinath and Dev.
However, now, Pathan is making his name in the domestic circuit. Recently, in Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy, he did well with both bat and ball and has shown a fighting spirit to make a comeback in team India.
Need for a change
But none of these Indian all-rounders, in the last two decades, could match the excellence of Jacques Kallis or good performances of Shane Watson. India will never need a fast-bowling all-rounder in sub-continent, as spinning all-rounders like Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel fit in perfectly, but if India have to win big tournaments in overseas conditions, they need to restore the balance of the team by including a genuine fast-bowling all-rounder.
But the question remains: From where will India's own Dwayne Bravo, Abdul Razzaq, Shaun Pollock or Chris Cairns come?
World-class batsmen come one after another in India because of a concentrated effort at the grass-root level, and thanks to the infrastructure improvement by BCCI. But if BCCI doesn't wake up to the need of fast-bowling all-rounders, India's search would continue till eternity and will forever haunt India in overseas conditions.