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Same old attack, all-new challenge

Mohammed Shami hits his delivery stride BCCI

By the end of it, MS Dhoni had almost given up on them. He was helpless with India's fast bowlers. When on tours, where fast bowling decided matches, he would watch his batsmen having to take risks to score off the home quicks but then his own bowlers would keep letting the opposition batsmen score pressure-free runs. A complete seam-bowling performance such as Durban 2010-11 was a rare bonus.

Apart from the aberration at Lord's in 2014, when Dhoni practically took over and dictated to Ishant Sharma what to bowl, the recurring theme in Dhoni's two wins and 13 defeats as captain in Australia, England and South Africa was his watching on helplessly as the seamers failed to string together good overs and keep it going through long days of Test cricket. If they did manage to do so as a combination, one or the other would get injured soon enough. When Zaheer Khan finally did last a series, in Australia in 2011-12, he did so as a pale shadow of himself.

On India's next tour there, when Virat Kohli took over as captain, on flat Australian tracks with no help for spinners, India's bowling was a shambles. Mohammed Shami had a great seam position but he bowled a loose ball almost every over as his series economy rate of 4.24 will tell you. Bhuvneshwar Kumar wasn't so much loose as he was knackered and lacking in intensity and pace. Ishant had become disciplined but he was almost happy being the stock bowler whose aim, it seemed, was to only go at around three an over. Umesh Yadav had pace but little else; he went at 4.62 an over in that series.

In the next year, India will travel to countries with the fastest scoring grounds in the world since 2000: in increasing order of strike-rates, South Africa, England and Australia. Historically, South Africa has had the second-fastest scoring grounds, behind only Bangladesh, a young Test venue.

Why then are India so hopeful going to South Africa this time around with basically the same set of bowlers? The answer might possibly lie in a Kohli press conference when he had just taken over. He said he wanted India's bowlers to learn from Josh Hazlewood's relentlessness. The fast bowler had made his debut in that series and had already shown signs of why he would earn comparisons with Glenn McGrath. The obvious question for Kohli then was what India's quicks lacked. Surely they didn't bowl bad balls on purpose? Surely they didn't think they could pitch on leg and hit top of off once every over?

Kohli was pointedly asked if India's bowlers lacked fitness, the strength to stay accurate and still not float half-volleys when bowling the fourth over of a spell or towards the end of a long day. Kohli spoke of composure, of character, of "wanting to bowl that second or third spell for the team". But it's funny, when you get down to building it, how much of your character depends on your physical fitness and strength. Kohli soon seemed to have identified fitness as the missing link in India's bowling department. Although his first home series as captain didn't require much fitness with extreme turners on offer, it soon seemed a fitness marker had been laid. And these were fairly young bowlers with the best trainers and training facilities available to them; there was no reason to not be up to industry standards.

India have tended to play their Test cricket in cycles in recent times: consecutive home series followed by a tour of the world. In the last home cycle in 2012-13, India's fast bowlers were almost non-existent. There was no clear plan, no foresight to build an attack for the next cycle of travel. No fast bowler played more than half of India's matches, nobody went abroad knowing what his role was going to be. The most overs a fast bowler bowled in that cycle was Ishant's 169, which was a fourth of the overs the leading spinner, R Ashwin bowled in the same period.

This home cycle - West Indies and Sri Lanka included because conditions there are somewhat similar - has been longer but the fast bowlers have been made to feel a bigger part of the side. At times they were asked to come back even though the spinners were doing the job just fine. Umesh has bowled 617 overs, close to 45% of Ashwin's 1449. Ishant and Shami are not too far behind. Every time there has been a pitch with seam on offer, Bhuvneshwar has been called up.

There has been a clear plan in place, the bowlers are the same but fitter and more experienced. If Dhoni led his team assuming a certain amount of maturity and personal responsibility from his players, Kohli has demanded it. Shami is a much improved bowler after sorting out issues with his run-up strides, but he still carries a question mark over his fitness over a long gruelling series, especially with the first two Tests to be played in two weeks. India will rely on him to do what Sreesanth, the common link in India's only two Test wins in South Africa, did: exploit all the seam movement on offer with the new ball and the uneven bounce of the hard, baked pitches with the old ball.

The first half of the job, getting the fast bowlers physically fit with overs in their legs, is largely done, but mostly in conditions where these bowlers were not expected to get the wickets. They were also allowed to feed off the pressure created by Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. They knew if they didn't succeed, Ashwin and Jadeja were there to clean up after them. To carry the expectation of doing everything, the knowledge that Ashwin and Jadeja can't rescue them, is a whole new pressure.

They have rarely been faced with a situation, for example, where they have spent a considerable amount of fuel even before getting to an explosive yet accomplished No. 7 such as Quinton de Kock. Just on their last series of away tours, they failed to finish off the Johannesburg and Wellington Tests, let England's last wicket add 198 at Trent Bridge, and watched Australia's last four double the score in Brisbane. The bowlers need to show this time that they are differently equipped to handle those situations.

One of the reasons India's quicks get easily picked away for runs to the leg side is the line they are used to bowling at home, which is to attack the stumps. This is evident, for example, from 45.5% of their wickets in this home stretch being lbw and bowled. A whopping 16 out of Bhuvneshwar's 24 wickets have come by targeting the stumps. On slower pitches with reverse-swing often your ally, you can get away by bowling too straight. In fact, that's what these pitches demand. Over the last 10 years in South Africa, only 28% of pace bowlers' victims have been lbw or bowled. On truer pitches with reverse less often available, the attack has to move outside off, to attack the outside edge. Accordingly, the length will have to get fuller: the stock length on pitches with lower bounce is shorter.

Umesh's straight lines were exposed during the recent Ranji Trophy semi-final when he was expected to lead the attack on a seaming pitch in Kolkata.

On the last morning, with their opponents Karnataka reduced to 111 for 7, Umesh bowled seven overs for 33 runs and no wicket as the tail took them to within five runs of the target. They might have Hardik Pandya for support in South Africa, but between the three selected fast bowlers they can't afford one of them bowling such spells despite helpful conditions.

It will still likely be a toss-up between Bhuvneshwar and Umesh for the first Test with Shami and Ishant almost certain starters. The more helpful the conditions, the likelier it is that Bhuvneshwar will be asked to exploit them. This pace attack is definitely one of the better ones India are travelling with - if only for their pace and sturdiness - but the pressure they will face and the skill they will require in South Africa is different. They will need to adjust quickly.