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|July 10, 1998||
Strike Force!Prem Panicker
Ever so often in a game of cricket, there comes a moment that defines a player, or a team.
The recent Singer Akai Nidahas Trophy final, between India and Sri Lanka at the Premadasa Stadium on July 7, produced one such -- and the focus was squarely on Ajit Agarkar.
It happened in the 32nd over with Sri Lanka, chasing 308 for a win, very comfortably placed at 197 for three.
Indian skipper Mohammad Azharuddin was in a dilemma. At the crease were Aravinda D'Silva, in masterly form, and Arjuna Ranatunga, past master of the art of the chase. His own spinners were being mauled, his support seamer Robin Singh had proved ineffective, and even as he tossed the ball around among his bowling contingent, the game was slowly, surely, being taken out of India's hands.
As he has made a practise of doing of late, Azharuddin turned in his desperation to Agarkar. Four deliveries later, Arjuna Ranatunga was walking back to the pavilion, and India was back in the game.
It was a stroke Ranatunga had made an entire career out of -- waiting at the crease, letting the ball come right on to him, then jabbing with the open face of the bat, aiming the ball down fine, past the keeper, to the vacant third man region. Against any other bowler in the Indian side on that pitch, I would have backed the Lankan skipper to get the runs he was looking for.
Against Agarkar, the stroke failed.
Essentially, Ranatunga was hustled out. The ball was in the slot for the stroke -- only, it was faster than the batsman anticipated. Instead of bat meeting ball, it was the other way around -- the ball hurried onto the bat, took the top part rather than the middle, and instead of going along the ground, flew in the air for Mongia to complete a spectacular catch.
For me, that dismissal -- even more perhaps than the way he got Jayasuriya, with a reverse-swinging full toss that cramped the rampaging batsman and forced him to shovel a catch to deep backward square -- defined Agarkar.
Defined him as India's leading strike force today -- the man you turn to, when things look bleak and the team badly needs a breakthrough.
Thinking back to the 15 ODIs I've watched this boy bowl in, I lose count of the number of times I've had to say those words, both in commentary and in the match report: "The ball came on faster than the batsman had anticipated..."
Therein lies his strength -- and in that strength, lurks the reason for his phenomenal success.
It is the age of hype. Television commentators in particular have become increasingly prodigal with their adjectives, as they seek to whip up audience interest in yet another one day tamasha. Thus, rank long hops mishit to fielders brilliant wicket-taking deliveries, streaky edges to third man are transformed into "superb" boundaries.
Using an adjective, especially one like "phenomenal", therefore sticks in the craw for a bit. But then you look at the boy's record, and you wonder -- what else can you call it?
When he returned figures of 3 for 31 in the final of the Coca Cola tri-series against Kenya on May 31, Agarkar completed 10 ODIs, for a haul of 24 wickets. Only Otis Gibson of the West Indies has had a better start to his career, with 28 wickets, while even the phenomenal Shane Warne ranks third below the Mumbai quick bowler, with 22.
At this point, he has played 15 games, claimed 36 wickets (12 more, between 10-15), at an average of 18.27 and a strike rate of 21.5. With as many as three four-wicket hauls.
Compare those figures with leading ODI bowlers today. Saqlain Mushtaq? 155 wickets at an average of 19.12 and a strike rate of 26.6. Allan Donald? Average 21.25, strike rate 31.4. Shane Warne? Average 24.68, strike rate 35.9. India's own Anil Kumble, the man who, before Agarkar burst on the scene, was the one successive skippers turned to for a breakthrough? Average 26.84, strike rate 39.4.
While Agarkar is yet to bowl in as many games as the players mentioned above, his strike rate -- one wicket off every 21.5 balls -- is already beginning to amaze. In fact, of the 15 games he has bowled in, only once has he ended wicketless -- in India's last league encounter against New Zealand, where his seven overs went for 39, without success. And one strikeless game in 15 is 'phenomenal', by any yardstick.
Sanjay Manjrekar, Agarkar's skipper in Ranji Trophy games last season, said in course of a recent commentary session: "That boy weighs 58 kilos (his height, by the way, is five foot seven). I told him, he has either to add body weight, or stop bowling fast."
It is this lean build that makes his success so inexplicable -- Agarkar does not have the build of a fast bowler, lacking in both height and upper body bulk, two essentials needed to generate pace and steepling bounce. (Frankly, when the Agarkar bandwagon first began rolling about a year and a half ago, I saw brief clips of him in action, and tended to write him off as another David Johnson, good enough in domestic competition but without the requisite armoury to make it big on the world stage).
And yet, almost all his wickets come through a combination of those factors -- unsuspected pace, and sudden bounce on seemingly placid tracks.
The secret lies in his action -- about as classical as you can get. The run up of 18 yards (it used to be 15, before Bombay coach Balwinder Sandhu suggested that the young quick add three more yards, in order to generate more momentum) is relaxed, and easy, the body held upright and the feet moving close to the ground, in a manner patented by fast bowling great Michael Holding.
He has a long delivery stride -- and, interestingly, possesses the 'drag', where the toe of the back foot digs deep into the earth as he glides into his delivery, braking him for a fraction of a second and enabling him to gather himself, translate the momentum of the run up into the actual delivery.
The delivery itself is very reminiscent of Wasim Akram -- perfectly side on, left hand thrown up, the bowler sighting the batsman over the left shoulder, pivoting perfectly and climaxing it all with a whiplash movement of the bowling arm propelling the ball over the 22 yards at a speed you don't look for from one of his stature.
His action gives him a natural late away swinger, to which he has added a late reverse swing, and a ball he holds back fractionally -- not quite the slower ball, but just enough variation in pace to get the batsman driving early.
His biggest asset, however, is aggression. Check out his bowling figures, and you find that he keeps getting taken for runs -- after all, 5.10 hardly qualifies as an "economy" rate.
But to be fair to the youngster, the real reason for such a high economy rate is his attitude of aggression. As exemplified, for instance, in the way he bowled to Jayasuriya in the final. When the batsman waltzed down to slash him over cover for a six, the response was a bouncer. And where even the more experienced Prasad began bowling the defensive line, Agarkar kept probing, bowling full, moving the ball around, trying for the edge or the one that goes through the gate, even though by then, Azharuddin had removed both slips.
If there is a problem with Agarkar, it lies in his back. Already, in 1997, he was out of action after bowling eight overs in the Ranji final in Gwalior, thanks to a back problem. And given the enormous amount of bowling he has had to do of late, the strain on his back is only going to get worse.
The solution is simple -- the BCCI needs to recognise Agarkar, now, as a valuable resource, a long term one given how young he is. And rather than play him in the Kuala Lumpur triangular, sponsor him to a fortnight's stint at the Australian cricket academy, where he can have the benefit of a thorough physiological examination, and top quality advice on the diet, and exercises, he needs to follow to ensure he doesn't cave in under the strain.
Agarkar's career has, thus far, been straight out of a story book.
The son of Balachandra and Meena Agarkar (he has one sister, Manik), Ajit started out wanting to be a batsman.
Several broken windows later -- Agarkar initially started out with a yen to be a big-hitting batsman -- his exasperated father hauled him off to Shivaji Park, close enough to his Worli Seaface residence, and entrusted him to supercoach Ramakanth Achrekar.
Achrekar's first move was to get his new ward to change his school, from IES to Shardashram. Agarkar was in class VI at the time, and developing into a good batsman who could bowl a bit.
Under Achrekar's coaching, Agarkar turned into a hugely consistent performer with the bat in the inter-school Giles Shield (Under 16), scoring heavily and in fact notching up a triple century at the age of 15.
He continued to be a top performer in the Harris Shield (Under 19) scoring 100s regularly and showing signs of being another Tendulkar in the making. However, he was increasingly beginning, around this stage, to concentrate on his bowling.
"Friends pointed out to me that it would be hard to make it into the Bombay team as a pure bowler, and that I stood a better chance as an all-rounder," Agarkar explains, of the compulsions that made him take to bowling.
His heroes at the time were Kapil Dev, Michael Holding, Ian Botham (and lately, Allan Donald). Agarkar took to watching videos of his favourite quicks, learning all the time. "I never aimed at imitating anyone, I was just observing the way they bowl, their techniques. My aim was to develop my own style," recalls Agarkar, of that period.
It was the 1996-1997 season that that saw him really grab the headlines. Named Outstanding Junior of the Year that year, he was player of the series in the Sportstar Trophy under-19 competition, before going on to lead Bombay to a win in the Cooch Behar Trophy.
Around this time, Agarkar also spent a brief stint training under Frank Tyson, honing up his bowling skills and developing pace.
From that point on, his career went into overdrive. With Anshuman Gaikwad as his manager/coach, Agarkar toured Sri Lanka with the Indian Colts (Under 19) and scored centuries against the Board President's XI and also in a Test. On that same tour, he first gave notice of his all-rounder status, when he bagged 14 wickets in three Tests.
Then came the India A tour of Pakistan, by the end of which his coach, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, was to become his greatest fan. In fact, it was 'Cheeka' who spoke of Agarkar in glowing terms to the national selectors, and insisted that they blood him in the India senior side. "He is the player for the future," Srikkanth told all who would listen, after returning from that tour. "He's brilliant, I have seen few players move the ball the way he does."
The first sign that India had found an exciting new prospect came in Lahore where, on a flat, dead track where even the experienced Aqib Javed wasn't getting the ball to rise, Agarkar got surprising pace and bounce. Pakistan, responding to India's 557, were 69 for three before rain intervened to save the hosts further embarassment.
Then came the Test at the National Stadium, in Karachi. On a pace-friendly track, Agarkar came into his own on the second day, after India had taken first strike again.
He bowled four spells -- and struck hard, each time. His pace and movement had Shahid Afridi and Bazid Khan caught at fourth slip, his sharp inswing trapped both Basit Ali and Salim Elahi LBW, and then he lured international Akthar Sarfaraz into a trap, having him caught at deep backward square. Agarkar finished the innings with 6 for 69.
In the second innings, Pakistan needed 229 for a win -- and started disastrously, with Agarkar again taking out the experienced Salim Elahi for a duck. Then came a superb late outswinger that drew the edge from Basit Ali, followed by late reverse swing that made a mess of Akthar Sarfaraz's stumps. Pakistan crumbled to defeat, Srikkanth ran out of superlatives, and the rest, as they say, is history in the making.
"I am thoroughly impressed with the way Ajit has bowled in international cricket," says his coach Ramakant Achrekar (A full interview with Achrekar is slated for these pages, early next week). "He is an attacking bowler who concentrates on taking wickets. He may not be as well built as Donald or Ambrose, but he is very nippy, and can surprise the best batsmen with extra pace.
"He needs to work on his fitness, though, and build up his muscles. I would also add that he should be handled with extreme caution, and not be overused, which is always a temptation with a strike bowler, overuse may result in burnout or injury and that will be a big loss for Indian cricket."
Former greats, ranging from Gavaskar to Vengsarkar, echo that caution about overwork. And, at the same time, indicate that in their opinion, Agarkar is more than ready to make the big time, in the Test arena.
His greatest asset, said a former Test star, speaking off the record, is the fact that he is not overawed by reputations. "Debuting against a team like Australia, bowling to a player of the calibre of Mark Waugh first up, is not easy, even top bowlers tend to be wary of Mark's fluent strokeplay but in Kochi, Agarkar was into his rhythm straightaway, and bowled as though he was a veteran," the star said.
"What I liked of that performance was that though he was taken for something like 30 runs in just five overs, he kept attacking, without letting up. He should be used as a strike bowler, with attacking fields -- the runs he gives away is more than compensated by the wickets he takes, and if you look at his record, you will find that a lot of them are top order batsmen of the highest class."
Agarkar himself has fond memories of his debut. "Azhar told me ahead of time that I would be playing, so I could prepare myself," he recalls. "And both Azhar and Sachin spoke to me before the game, helped me relax, stay focussed, the whole team was very supportive."
Did he contemplate the possibility of failure -- all the more frightening in the context of Indian selectors, who tend to drop players without any reason whatsoever when the mood is on them?
"No," he says, musing for a moment. "I didn't think of failing. I am concentrating on just doing what I do best. And on enjoying myself. If I worry about failing, how can I enjoy success?"
A very mature philosophy, from a very young boy.
"I would like to score a century for India, some time," he laughs.
Mail Prem Panicker
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