At the end of Australia’s innings, Virat Kohli doffed his hat at Jasprit Bumrah. It was the captain’s way of acknowledging his star bowler’s pricelessness. As for the shy 25-year-old, who had just snared six wickets and put India on the cusp of a famous victory, he kept giggling, like he always does. This was the quintessential Bumrah, someone who doesn’t even angry when catches are dropped off his bowling. He doesn’t even engage the batsmen with verbals or even trade piercing glares. Finally, cricket’s had a nice guy who consistently bowled 145 kph plus.
Perhaps, he’s so well-stocked with various modes of deception that he needn’t resort to theatrics. Instead, he’s perennially plotting the batsman’s dismissal, with a rare blend of superior skills and cricketing intelligence. The facts concur—among Indian bowlers this year, he’s the highest wicket-taker, the least expensive among them, owns the best strike rate and average, and has bowled the second most overs for India this calendar year. Mohammed Shami, who though has played three more Tests than him, has 13 more deliveries.
No Indian bowler has picked more wickets than him (45) in a calendar year abroad, and some of them have influenced Test wins abroad. He picked 5/54 in Johannesburg to orchestrate an incredible victory. Six months later, his claimed another five-for as India won at Trent Bridge. The match was slipping away before he struck with successive deliveries, accounting for centurion Jonny Bairstow and the in-form Jos Buttler. Likewise, on the slumbering MCG surface, he produced a sterling display of hostile fast bowling that left Australia in tatters and India on the verge of retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Should they achieve what seems like an inevitability, Kohli would be the first Indian skipper to have ever won two Tests in Australia in the same series. And a step away from being the first Asian captain to clinch a Test series in Australia.
But what makes him so special? Pace, aggression and intensity are vital factors. So is his assortment of variations at his disposal. He’s armed with every vaunted weapon in a fast-bowler’s manual—yorker, bouncer, off-cutter, slower ball, slow bouncer. A more valuable gift is his ability to both swing and seam the ball and to judge the right length on a particular surface.
Like for instance, at the MCG, he realised the surface was offering negligible assistance. So he rings in the short-format methods, bowling fuller at stumps at great pace, slipping the occasional slower ball, the one which has became a social-media sensation. It was a classic example of Bumrah’s situational intelligence. He quickly sized up that the surface wasn’t the characteristic Aussie back-of-length types. So he changed the strategy.
Strange then it’s to think that he was typecast as a short-form specialist when he burst into the collective consciousness of the cricketing fraternity with his quirky action and stinging toe-crushers. But he, like few other, quickly learnt to blend the parallel bowling worlds, making him the finest specimens of modern-day hybrid bowler. It’s a rare art that is not as easy as flicking a switch. Among the current crop of Indian seamers only Bhuvneshwar Kumar can be called an all-format pacer. This adaptability requires conviction, guts and a fair degree of mastery and awareness.
In that vein, he’s a captain’s dream. In England, the pursuit was swing, he strove a fuller length. In South Africa and the first two Tests in Australia, the endeavour was extra bounce, so the back-of-length ploy to coax the awkward lift. At MCG, he sized up that fuller length was more productive than back-of-length. However, it wasn’t a one-dimensional case of him just striving for yorkers and fuller-lengths, he mixed his lengths, peppered the sporadic bouncer, the back-of-length, fuller-length, self-testifying another virtue of his, tactical flexibility.
What he excelled the most was that he didn’t overdo a per-conceived plan, a historical vulnerability of Indian seamers. But then Bumrah is as rare as Indian fast bowlers come, the species of multi-skilled bowler Indian skippers of the past could only imagine. No doubt, they had some terrific bowlers like Kapil Dev Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan, besides an ensemble cast. But Srinath was bereft of variations, he developed the away-goer way too late in his career. Zaheer for all his mastery of bowling’s dark arts, hadn’t the body to match his cunning. Kapil lost pace in his late 20s.
And if keeps progressing as meteorically as he had been, Kohli will have to doff his hat several times in the future and watch him break into bashful giggles.
Bumrah’s bagful of tricks
It’s hard to think of a modern-day bowler who has exuded such adaptability in varied conditions as Jasprit Bumrah, one of the main reasons he has been so effective in every overseas tour. Here’s how he has adapted, used different tools and reaped the dividends.
Yorkers vs Australia (2nd spell, first innings, Melbourne)
The MCG strip, if a little inconsistent with bounce, was bland. There was negligible lateral movement, bounce or trampolining carry. So Bumrah shifted to short-form mode, pelting yorkers, bowling fuller at stumps, extracting reverse swing, ratcheting up pace and slipping in the odd slower ball, changing the angles and release points. The plan, clearly, was to nail them in front of the wicket or rattle their stumps, and the concoction of reverse swing, raw speed and variations unnerved the Australians.Apart from the wicket of Marcus Harris and Josh Hazlewood, the rest were accrued from yorker/full-length deliveries. None so memorable than the slower-ball yorker to Shaun Marsh.
Back-of-a-length balls vs Australia, (second innings, Adelaide)
At least on the first few days, there was sufficient carry and bounce for the seamers. So he hit the deck hard, made the ball jump and seam both ways, making life incredibly difficult of the left-hand-heavy Australian batting line-up. He would ruffle them with the ball that goes with the angle, before he rips the one that shapes a little away, catching the batsmen unawares. The wicket of Shaun Marsh was a classic instance, setting him up with a spate of incoming deliveries before making one shade marginally away. But the movement was so late that Marsh couldn’t withdraw his bat in time. His ability to move the ball off the seam both ways has confounded several Australian batsmen. Not that they’re used to it, but he does so at supreme pace.
Full, fuller, fullest vs England (second innings, Nottingham)
There was just enough juice in the surface, but he maximised it with clever bowling, predominantly probing a fuller length, striving for out-swing, before making one bend back precociously. It’s an obvious, old-fashioned trap, but still confuses most batsman. Jos Buttler was one of them, and he was batting on 106, before he left an in-swinger that cannoned onto his pads. Then the next ball, he had Buttler poking at one that swung away marginally, thus setting up memorable victory.
As short as it gets vs Australia (first spell, first innings, Melbourne)
Taking a cue from the Australians, Bumrah began bowling the short-ball first-up. Though, traditionally, Australians are good cutters and pullers, the inconsistent bounce made the horizontal shot bats risky. Marcus Harris learnt it shortly, the first bouncer was at his mid-riff, but the second was neck high and he instinctively hooked, but Bumrah suffocated him for room. Though he got the chunk of the blade, it didn’t have enough elevation to beat Ishant Sharma at fine-leg. There was another memorable bouncer than consumed England’s Chris Woakes at Trent Bridge.