For the first time ever, fans can actually buy tickets just to see Indians bowl in an ODI match. The way the batsmen are playing, it might be more than a good reason to do so but that gripe can be kept for some other day. For the first time their attack can be used as an adjective, not just a filler that one has unconsciously internalised in childhood. India rarely attacked, they could defend, hustle with scoreboard pressure, but this unit is different.
What scoreboard pressure? They can create it with their sheer talent, out of thin air. The cynics would say – and they won’t be wrong – that this unit also can have an average day and what if the batsmen continue to plod along? But why mess up a beautiful day of high-quality bowling with such clichés? These are days to cherish, to enjoy. The best Indian-English phrase to discuss India’s bowling is ‘Tip Top!’
It was all on view as India thrashed West Indies by 125 runs to move within one win of a semifinal spot. Defending a good, but by no means insurmountable, total of 268, all the elements of India’s bowling attack were working in unison as the men from the Caribbean were sent packing from the World Cup, bowled for 143 with more than 15 overs remaining.
Different arrows in the quiver
What do we watch when a seamer has a new ball in his hands? When it’s an Australian, we watch out for the hard ball, the hit-the-deck-er. When it’s an Englishman, one looks for the seam presentation. Enter Mohammed Shami.
But India wanted more. Something different, that they never had before. And they found Kuldeep Yadav, the only discussion around him is whether it’s politically right to call him a chinaman or a left-arm wrist spinner.
Then India got greedier. They wanted someone that no country had. Not even our neighbours. What can it be? They had everything, what could we do better? What is that we have never seen before from anywhere? A pacer who could get the ball to skid and bounce, two qualities rarely seen from the same bowler. Enter Jasprit Bumrah.
What else could be done? Why not contemplate keeping out your best Test spinner of recent years, for one who has got variations for the limited-overs game? And so, they took out R Ashwin and brought in leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal. He was perky, crafty, sensed big moments well – and in this tournament, has got the ball to drift more than he has ever done before. With him, India felt they could attack in the middle overs and not see it as a meandering construct – something where they need to hold the runs in check, and wait for their better seamers to come back. Now, they could make the batsmen think and work up a sweat in the middle overs as well.
What else? How about someone who can go as low as any bowler in history? Enter Kedar Jadhav. He is seen as an amusing figure but on certain pitches, his style can be as effective, if not more, than specialist spinners. It’s a mystery why he wasn’t used on that Southampton track against Afghanistan – on a sluggish, sticky surface where the ball peeled off like gum from a shoe.
And so, someone like Bhuvneshwar Kumar can take his time to get fit without the team nudging the physio to look for a miracle cure. And once he gets over his bouncer fascination in his first two overs, Hardik Pandya has shown that he can keep it pretty tight, working the angles, slipping in the slower cutters, sprinkling the short balls.
“The last two games haven’t been perfect with the batting but we have found ways to win. The intensity in the first 15 overs on the field has been something really good,” Virat Kohli would say later – and he is spot on.
As far as Indian World Cup attacks go, the 1987 one was pretty good with Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar, Maninder Singh and Ravi Shastri, but 32 years later, it’s still difficult to understand why they allowed Graham Gooch to sweep them out of the tournament.
One can watch the highlights of how West Indies were felled and would get the sense of how it all came together. One of the balls of the tournament (Shami to Shai Hope), a heavy ball that startled the batsman (Shami to Chris Gayle), one that kicked up, seamed in but also presented the illusion that it was coming in a lot more that it did (Bumrah to Carlos Brathwaite), a classic quick nip-backer (Bumrah to Fabian Allen), a clever off-spun cutter (Pandya to Sunil Ambris), a googly (Chahal to Sheldon Cottrell), and one well-planned dismissal (a deep cover in, Chahal tempted Jason Holder with a flighted dolly outside off and the batsman obliged).
And still, despite all this, India would need their batting unit to click together if they are to be more confident about pulling off something special in this tournament. The absence of Shikhar Dhawan has thrown the unit in disarray. KL Rahul still gets caught playing from the crease, the reason for his failures in Test match cricket in the last year. And then, it opens up the middle order. Everyone seems to be batting at least a position above their skill. Vijay Shankar, who invariably ends up driving inside the line so often that one is bound to nick his outer edge, Kedar Jadhav, who loves the feel of bat on ball, fishes at stuff that should be well left alone, and then Dhoni is dragged too early into the piece, having the unenviable task of judging the target to set, and how to keep the innings together.
He should have been stumped on 8 in the 34th over when India were 154 for 4 – and who knows what would have happened had Hope, the ‘keeper, pulled it off. He had two opportunities at it but kept groping for the ball in broad sunlight.
And that was that. Dhoni struggled through for a while but didn’t give it up, fought his way through and with more than a bit of help from Pandya, pushed India to a formidable total on this pitch. And then Indian bowlers came on and made everyone wonder what was all the fuss about.