Net bowlers are the new class of fast bowlers in Indian cricket. Of late, many fast bowlers have been picked by the national selectors for overseas tours to Australia and England. There have also been instances of a couple of fast bowlers traveling with the official team for away, and in rare cases for home series, in the last one and half decades.
Many years ago when Kapil Dev was the head coach, the Indian team roped in Ajit Agarkar and Harvinder Singh Sodhi to bowl at the nets before a Test match at the Motera in Ahmedabad. This did not go down well with the BCCI because the team management had not taken permission from the then BCCI Secretary. JY Lele, to get Agarkar and Sodhi to Ahmedabad for the preparation of the Test, with the players deciding to foot the bill for the duration of the pre-Test training days.
Things have changed over time, perhaps for the better, with the team management keen to manage the workload of the premier fast bowlers who fit across all formats — Test and white-ball. The net bowlers, as is their description, are supposed to be on the fringe of national selection having excelled in the domestic tournaments and for India ‘A’teams. The Indian team also believes that the traveling net bowlers are far superior to the local net bowlers the local counties or provinces supply for practice sessions.
The new policy of the BCCI and the team motivates the net bowlers to impress the captain, support staff the top batsmen during net sessions, and even get the nod for a Test or white-ball match when circumstances create an opening. A case in point is that of left-arm seamer T Natarajan, who went to Australia as a net bowler and played the last Test at Sydney, replacing the injured Jasprit Bumrah.
For the recent Test series in England, the BCCI chose fast-medium pacers Aavesh Khan, Prasidh Krishna, and Arzan Nagwaswalla as the reserve players/ net bowlers.
The net bowler concept has been carried forward for the ICC Men’s Twenty20 World Cup to be played in the UAE from October 17 to November 14. The fast bowlers selected are Aavesh Khan, Harshal Patel, and Umran Malik, purely on the basis of the pace he generated in a few matches for Sunrises Hyderabad in the ongoing IPL season 14.
The IPL has given opportunities to the virtually unknown bowlers to make an impression on the selectors as well as those who matter like the India captain. Harshal had his best season in nine years of sweat and toil in the Twenty20 league with 32 wickets, and he has been rewarded with a call in the net bowler category. Harshal has played 63 IPL matches and has a tally of 78 wickets at 23.18, conceding 8.58 an over.
Harshal is a seasoned campaigner in domestic cricket and a force in both first class and Twenty20 format. This season he returned the faith placed on him by the RCB captain Virat Kohli, especially with New Zealander Kyle Jamieson not able to make any impression, and forced the selectors to pick him as a net bowler. He, though 30 years old, is almost certain to get the nod for the Twenty20 series against New Zealand. He has imbibed the skillset required to be among wickets in the shortest format of the game.
Avesh Khan also had his best IPL season for Delhi Capitals with 24 wickets. He has been a net bowler before and at 24 he can expect to be in the reckoning in the future.
The third uncapped fast bowler who caught the imagination of the selectors is Jammu and Kashmir’s rookie Umran Malik. The young fast bowler hit the headlines at the fag end of the IPL for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, clocking speed in excess of 150kmph. Kohli was impressed, so were many others and also the selectors. He bowled 12 overs in three matches and picked up two wickets. Malik is an unfinished product and needs to do the hard yards and take wickets in order to.be deemed ready for higher honours. Speed excites and thrills people and that’s what Malik has done in three consecutive matches.
Punjab Kings’ left arm Seamer Arshdeep Singh too had a decent run in this season’s IPL. He took 18 wickets at 19, and he should be getting adequate exposure in the future.
About 50 plus seamers were seen in action in phase 2 of the IPL 14. Among other Indians who made an impact was Kolkata Knight Riders’ Shivam Navi. He has taken eight wickets in five matches. He came in at the expense of Prasidh Krishna, whose expensive 19th over to CSK’s Ravindra Jadeja cost him a place in the playing XI of the subsequent matches.
While the seamers had a good run in the UAE leg of the league, the spinners, apart from Yuzvendra Chahal, Varun Chakravarthy, and to an extent Axar Patel and Ravi Bishnoi did not make a big impact. But the selectors have included left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed in the net bowler group for the Twenty20 World Cup, with a specific objective in mind.
The selectors have also picked left-arm medium-pacer Lukman Iqbal Meriwala in the net bowler group. He bowled three overs for Delhi Capitals against Punjab Kings at the Wankhede Stadium in April, conceded 32 runs, and picked up a wicket. He has been chosen ahead of Arshdeep and Rajasthan Royals’ Chetan Sakariya.
Many a player has looked upon the IPL as a springboard to be launched into the competitive world of international cricket. Though none of the players have forced their way into the India 15 for the World Cup, except for Shardul Thakur (at the expense of left-arm spinner Axar Patel), many have got nearer by way of being picked in the pool of players assembled in the UAE to help the team prepare for the Twenty20 big bash. This list includes batsman Venkatesh Iyer and leg spinner Karn Sharma.
India is scheduled to play New Zealand and South Africa this year, and it also has a packed home series in the first quarter of ‘2022 and sure enough some in the eight-man preparatory group would get the honour of playing for India in one of the formats of the game.