“It’s not a natural thing. Indian bodies are not designed to bowl fast.”
So said Zaheer Khan, one of India’s greatest ever fast bowlers, back in 2011. It’s received wisdom that Pakistan produces great fast bowlers – the likes of Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, and Shoaib Akhtar – while India – the land of Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, and Virat Kohli – specialises in great batsmen.
India’s 2018 ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup squad is dispelling the myth, sporting three bowlers, in Ishan Porel, Shivam Mavi, and Kamlesh Nagarkoti, who are capable of topping 145 KPH, and all with some of the most natural bowling techniques you could wish to see at any level of cricket.
It’s Nagarkoti in particular who’s got the purists purring - and purse strings opening, Kolkata Knight Riders shelling out over US$500,000 for his services at the recent IPL auction - with two former international fast bowlers and current ICC commentators Danny Morrison and Ian Bishop naming him first when asked to pick out players from this tournament who could be future stars.
“Mavi and Nagarkoti, particularly Nagarkoti, have a bright future,” said Bishop. “They’ve got two really good actions and I think Nagarkoti’s is even better in terms of what we call tightness. He keeps everything close to the body, he has a rhythmical, smooth and efficient run up, and it helps him get the ball down at over 140 kilometres per hour consistently from that whippy action. If these kids do the type of work they need, in five years time as their bodies mature, if they are not overworked they’ll probably add another three, four, five kilometres per hour."
During India’s opening game against Australia Nagarkoti’s fastest delivery was clocked at 149 KPH; another five on top of that would see his top speed sit closer to 100 than 90 MPH. It’s a big claim, but Danny Morrison isn’t afraid to mention Nagarkoti’s name alongside some of the very best when discussing his technique.
“They go on about how compact you are in the cylinder, loading up, not arms going all over the place and falling away,” he said. “He has a very good sequence and timing in his action and the rhythm and the way he gets his feet down quite quickly is something they talk about. Shane Bond had a lot of injuries but he was great at getting his back foot landing and then his front foot landing quite quickly. As was the great Malcolm Marshall, even though he sprinted his feet would land quickly, dink dink.”
When asked if he would compare him to these two directly, Morrison just laughs, but does find a more esoteric touching stone - Indian fast bowler Ajit Agarkar, who took just 58 Test wickets at an average only marginally under 50, but did show what he was capable of when he claimed 6/41 against Australia at Adelaide in 2003, helping script one of India's most famous victories.
“He reminds me a bit of Ajit Agarkar in how whippy he is,” he said. “But I think he’s got a better action than him, it’s more refined. For a guy so young to have that timing and load up and everything and rhythm, and that presentation at the crease and follow through is amazing. He gets the most out of his frame, and from a personal respect I know what that’s like, not being a tall, strapping, big guy. But because you get your rhythm and your timing right in your action, you can be quick.”
As much as Nagarkoti has got cricket fans around the world excited and following with extra interest whenever he comes onto bowl, for the batsman the sight of him loosening up must send shivers down the spine. Former England Test batsman and ICC commentator Rob Key thinks it’s more than purely his pace that makes him a perilous proposition.
“He’s funny because he’s got a quick arm,” Key said. “You have some bowlers, it sounds ridiculous, they’re quick but you get to see the ball, they’ve got quite a nice action to see. But he just comes hurtling in and you know it’s going to be quick and his arm just whips over so it’s much harder to pick length. For some reason you don’t have quite as much time to see when the bumpers coming at you because this thing comes over – phwom – and you get less of a tell.
“The other thing with him and Mavi is they’re gonna be at you a bit, they’ve got good control. Sometimes you face fast bowlers and you know they’re a bit wild, and it’s quite nice because you know you’re going to get opportunities to score but both those two, Mavi and Nagarkoti are pretty accurate for the pace they get.”
Pakistan wouldn’t be Pakistan without some promising fast bowlers of their own, and in Shaheen Afridi, they have one with an aura and a record to match all of them, and perhaps even surpass all of them – no-one else at this tournament can claim to have taken 8/39 on first class debut, or invoked so many comparisons to Mitchell Starc that passes from being a point of pride to a source of irritation.
When it comes to the semi-final, India’s line up, containing five right-handers – including star batsmen Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill – in its top seven, may have particular reason to fear him. “I think the obvious thing is he’s got height and he’s a left-armer,” said Morrison. “In terms of the uniqueness of left-armers and what they bring to the table in white-ball cricket in particular, is that you start over the wicket and if it’s not quite going to your plan, left-armers when they bowl this left-arm round the wicket, particularly to right handers, have this unique angle, and things suddenly seem a lot different, particularly if the left-arm quick bowler swings the ball in the air.
“Shaheen does swing the ball at the top, he’s got pace and bounce, and he’s aggressive, and he’s confident in the way he goes about things. My only concern is is he going to get his rhythm right on the big stage of a semi-final.The weather’s been great here in Christchurch, but we saw some overcast conditions in the first semi-final and the Aussies made the most of that. If the conditions are similar, it wouldn’t surprise me if Pakistan would like to go up front and see if their swing guys can get amongst it early.”
It should be fascinating to watch: two bowlers, so contrasting in style – one right-arm, short and skiddy, the other left-arm, tall and bouncy – but with extreme pace in common. How each of them bowls, and how each team negotiates them, could go a long way to determining who will earn the chance to face Australia in the final of the ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup. It’s not to be missed.