India is a country that loves its batsmen. They get the ads, the fans, the money. Spinners do hog the limelight once in a while, but it is after years of toil, or if they take all the wickets of a friendly neighbour nation. Fast bowlers, meanwhile, have no such luck.
It is more to do with the upbringing. In ‘mundu’ cricket (as we called galli cricket), the emphasis is always with the batsman. The kid who brings the bat to play, dictates the terms of the game, and is batsman cum third umpire, judging himself not out at regular intervals. Bowling was not cool. Batting was.
The lack of green pastures in cricket grounds is another reason for aspiring bowlers to look for greener pastures, like batting or wicket-keeping. And the same attitude is carried on when we grow up and only watch cricket. Batsmen are hailed as gods and bowlers are lesser gods, like Kubera or the Ashwini twins.
It was worse in the 90s, when Indian batting revolved around, began from, and merged with Sachin Tendulkar. A typical day in the office for the bowler would involve Sachin batting, with the remaining batsmen making short trips to the pitch. Which would be followed by the bowlers getting on to the dry, flat, dust-bowl of a pitch, bowling at a steady 125 kph, and getting whacked by the batsmen.
Indian fast bowlers, you see, are not the normal breed of fire-breathing kind who stop every few overs and remind the batsmen of his lineage. Indian fast bowlers put the ‘gentle’ in the Gentleman’s game. Their bowling, is selfless, harmless, very giving. This trait can be seen even today with Sreesanth for example. He bowls a few tight overs, and then, his heart goes out to the batsmen, and lo and behold! there is a nice, expensive little over so the batsmen doesn’t get depressed.
Another thing about Indian fast bowlers is their build. They are not huge and intimidating like West Indian quickies. They are gentle, 9 to 5 kinda blokes. India never had fast bowlers like Jeff Thomson or Curtly Ambrose. We did have Nilesh Kulkarni at 6’4, but he bowled a gentle slow left arm spin. They are not aggressive, do not sledge, do not give emphatic statements, and hence do not make for good news copy or ad material.
The first person who comes to mind when one talks of Indian fast bowlers is Javagal Srinath. Now, Venkatesh Prasad at least had his Prasad moment when he showed Aamir Sohail the index finger. Srinath did not have even that.
For eleven years, the man went about bowling on dusty tracks, in one-sided matches, and in lost causes without so much as an angry retort at a batsmen. I have never seen him sledge a batsman. In fact, in one instance, he hit a Sri Lankan batsman on the helmet, gave out a loud gasp of pain, and ran to the batsman to check if he was ok.
More the industrious than the flamboyant, Javagal Srinath epitomised India’s fast bowling in the last decade. Together with Venkatesh Prasad, he carried on his shoulders the rickety cart of fast bowling. While his counterparts would run up to the batsman and give him pieces of their mind, Srinath would quietly walk back to the bowling mark, drenched in sweat.
Through thick and thin, summer and winter, this one man just ran to his mark, and bowled a teasing line to batsmen, who were always given a sample of Indian hospitality everytime he bowled. He was the true gentleman, who once famously said, “I’m the fastest vegetarian bowler in the world”. Srinath grudgingly became a non-vegetarian when everyone blamed his diet for his pace. But they didn’t know that it was something within him.
Today, as India struggles to find a bowler to partner Zaheer Khan, one wishes we had that mustachioed man with the drooping shoulders run in and bowl a tight over outside off stump. Sadly, he never got his due.