How did India build their world-beating bench strength? They have a system

It ends with an ominus warning not to assume things will remain rosy.

How did India build their world-beating bench strength? They have a system Photo

For long, its population made the countrys talent pool notionally the worlds largest. Now India has methods to identify and develop that talent to the fullest

MSK Prasad loved the lunch at the MCG. It was 2018-19, he was the travelling selector with the Indian team. He swelled with pride watching his side perform. On a slow, lifeless pitch India had batted two days before the bowlers started to make the surface respond. Prasad felt he was watching highly intelligent bowling machines operate with high precision.

India were on their way to a win when Prasad and Trevor Hohns, Australias chairman of selectors, were invited for a lunchtime chat in the members area. Hohns hosted the session. He asked the visiting selector how India were managing to consistently produce such good bowlers. Prasad pointed to Greg Chappell in the audience and said they had taken a cue from his time as India coach.

Prasad said Chappell had insisted on having a pool of 10-15 fast bowlers and looking after and monitoring them centrally. Munaf Patel, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Sreesanth were all products of that era. They served India well but not for long. Now there were systems in place to maintain bowlers fitness and intensity, Prasad told the audience. And there were more in the pipeline.

"Oh, what harm you have caused us, Greg," Hohns joked. India were beating Australia not just on the field but off it too. On it because they had done the work off it. This assertion of depth would be tested on Indias next trip to Melbourne, two years later.

Ishant Sharma didnt start the 2020-21 series. Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami were out after the first Test, where India had been bowled out for 36. With their fifth- and sixth-choice fast bowlers, India levelled the series in Melbourne. Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma and Umesh Yadav missed two Tests. R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari were out for one. By the start of the last Test, only two players from the first Test, the team managements 1st XI, remained. Five players made their debuts during the series. Anyone able to walk on his own two legs was played in the final Test.

The real deal: Mohammed Siraj was surprisingly close to the finished article in his first Test series, against Australia a few months ago Patrick Hamilton / © AFP/Getty Images

The real deal: Mohammed Siraj was surprisingly close to the finished article in his first Test series, against Australia a few months ago Patrick Hamilton / © AFP/Getty Images

The real deal: Mohammed Siraj was surprisingly close to the finished article in his first Test series, against Australia a few months ago Patrick Hamilton / © AFP/Getty Images

On short notice, the replacements played nearly as well as the incumbents. With some luck, of the sort that had deserted India previously, most notably in England in 2018, they ended up winning the series, the ultimate triumph of their depth and bench strength.

Warning: this is a boring story. It is replete with words such as "structures", "systems", "pathways", "depth", even "superannuated". This is the story of how India put together their bench strength.

Not only is India producing a high number of international-quality players, those cricketers are coming in ready. Hardly any debutant looks like he doesnt belong. Hardly any of them is a desperate pick or a gamble. Even when it might look like one - Mayank Agarwal in Melbourne in 2018 comes to mind - the player is unfazed.

Washington Sundar might have been a freak case of a predominantly T20 player coming good, but none of the people who oversee the feeder lines of Indian cricket was surprised at how at home Mohammed Siraj and Shubman Gill looked in their first Test series.

The last time India handed out so many debuts on an away tour was back in 1996, when as many as six players earned a cap in England. Two of those debutants, Rahul Dravid and Paras Mhambrey, now carry the responsibility of ensuring a player making his India debut is ready for that level of competition. Dravid had a stellar international career. Mhambrey didnt play a Test after that 1996 tour; his last Test began on his 24th birthday. Both players felt international cricket was a massive jump.

MSK Prasad (centre) on Indias bowlers: "They know how to get batsmen out, and they are fit enough to keep doing it" William West / © AFP/Getty Images

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