Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer
During the panel discussion following the launch of the inaugural Wisden India Almanack, someone in the audience wanted to know why India failed to produce fast bowlers while across the border Pakistan seemed to have a conveyor belt full of them. The two former captains on the panel, Ravi Shastri and Sourav Ganguly spoke of tradition, of heroes to look up to who happened to be fast bowlers, of how the knowledgeable fast track them into the national side, of unhelpful wickets in India and so on.
The following day, Junaid Ahmed claimed four wickets with a wonderful combination of pace and swing, as Pakistan beat India in the first one-day international doubtless adding to the anguish of the questioner as well as the rest of the fans in India. Some of the greatest contemporary fast bowlers, from Imran Khan to Wasim Akram to Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar as well as a host of young promising ones who didn't quite live up to that promise have emerged from Pakistan.
It can't be the weather, it can't be the diet, it can't be the training, it can't be the domestic system, it can't be the fitness levels, so what is it?
Pakistan's domestic cricket has never been a patch on the well-organised age-group level tournaments that envisage a smooth passage for the player in India. It was either an Imran Khan spotting a Wasim Akram and insisting on including him in the side or some other individual recommending someone else. Yet, it all comes together so well. The coaching system is not as well developed as the one in India, there are obviously fewer competitions, and in recent years Pakistan have been the pariahs of world cricket following the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus. No country has toured there in three years.
And yet a Junaid Khan emerges, fully formed, ready to take his place in the pantheon, health and moral values permitting.
Is it about hunger? Are Indian hopefuls too easily satisfied?
Years ago, when Dennis Lillee first came to Chennai to train the fast bowlers, he started the session by asking the youngsters to accompany him on a run around the boundary at Chepauk. After every round, the much younger bowlers kept dropping out, some clutching their stomachs while Lillee, then nearly 40, ran on and on and on. Very soon he was the last man running.
Perhaps it is a combination of things - psychological, physical and mental - that keeps the Indian fast bowler inconsistent and moored to a level of mediocrity while control over the same factors gives his Pakistani counterpart the boost to shine on the world stage.
Pakistani bowlers aren't much fitter, but their skill levels seem higher. After all, the two most recent innovations to the craft of bowling emerged in Pakistan. Reverse swing and the doosra.
Since Kapil Dev, India have produced only two world class fast bowlers, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan. The likes of Irfan Pathan, Sreeshanth, Munaf Patel among others promised so much, yet dropped out either owing to injury or for having lost the initial magic. Ishant Sharma is inconsistent while the best of the current crop of youngsters, Umesh Yadav is recovering from injury.
Lack of fast bowling strength is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, India lack the firepower to return bouncer for bouncer when playing against better equipped teams, and on the other their own batsmen lack practice against such bowling.
A system where two triple centuries are made within days of each other in domestic cricket by a player who looks thoroughly out of sorts at the higher level is both embarrassing and unnecessary.
Why do Indian fast bowlers break down so regularly? Why do they lose their pace after one or two series? Why do they settle down at a level much lower than the one they promised to when they started out? And what have successive bowling coaches achieved?
Any discussion on fast bowling in India will throw up more questions than answers. It wasn't always so. In India's inaugural Test, it was their fast bowlers - Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh - who reduced England to 19 for three in the first half hour. The latter, in the evocative words of Walter Hammond, came off the wicket "like the crack of doom." That reads today like something out of cition.