The left arm of God. It’s how Australians of a certain vintage remember Wasim Akram’s summer of 1989. Pakistan, marked by characteristic batting implosions, surrendered the series, but Akram left a lasting impression on those who watched, read or heard about the left-arm genius.
Excitement rolls in his soft voice, when noted Australian commentator Jim Maxwell recalls the years. “That was an exemplary exhibition of fast bowling. He did everything, swing, seam, reverse swing. The genius was in full bloom. The buzz around him was enormous, and he justified every bit of that,” he recollects.
Few fast bowlers, he says, have since captivated the Australian crowd like Akram. One who has, he says with spontaneous excitement, is Jasprit Bumrah. “I can only think of Jasprit Bumrah. I get the same vibes and excitement when I watch Bumrah, especially when I watch the short run-up.” Eight measured steps before the explosion.
For reputed cricket writer and historian Gideon Haigh too, Bumrah evokes memories of Akram. “The last quick to have such a buzz precede him was Wasim Akram. Prior to that, the West Indians of 1980s – Holding, Marshall, Croft. That bunch. It can safely be said that Bumrah is the most exciting pacer of this generation to set foot here for a series,” Haigh says.
Between Akram and Bumrah, a horde of great fast bowlers have set foot in Australia. Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose. Stuart Broad and James Anderson. Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar. Dale Steyn and Allan Donald. Fast bowling royalty, all of them, and they have thrilled and thrived, been admired and acknowledged. Yet, none have triggered the curiosity and excitement like Akram then, or Bumrah now.
Perhaps, their genius was, after all, predictable, unlike that of Akram and Bumrah. There is an Oriental mysticism, or the stalking fear that they could conjure something they have produced earlier in their career, like a magician pulling unforeseen tricks out of a hat. A strange feeling that you know them fully, yet some part of them is mysterious, incomprehensible to human imagination. Sometimes, it’s only an illusion. Haigh attributes it to “both owing to the impact being explosive and method being exciting.”
Both are once-in-a-millennium, unrepeatable bowlers. They are fast bowlers unlike any Australia has invented or imagined. An unreproducible design of nature, one the best bowling academies are incapable of assembling. There is a strange other-worldliness about Bumrah, from his stilted run-up to still-arm action, the hyper-extended elbow and the right arm that settles between his legs in the follow-through. Yet, for all his distinctiveness, his methods are classically orthodox. He relies on speed, swing, accuracy.
Their novelty, despite repetitiveness, does not fade. Akram, till the end of his career, managed to keep the batsmen’s brain ticking, wondering what strange path he would make the ball traverse. Bumrah is four years into international cricket —adequate time for his brilliance to become commonplace and dull his ability to surprise —but he still makes the audience gasp. Both have the ability to give everything and concede nothing, simultaneously beautiful and ruthless.
It’s a historical anomaly. Before Bumrah, the anticipation that preceded a series against India centred squarely around the batsmen. Spreading two decades and five series, it was Sachin Tendulkar and just Sachin Tendulkar. In the post-Tendulkar era, Virat Kohli carries the torch of expectation. Before Tendulkar, there was Sunil Gavaskar. There were other heroes, of course. Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Cheteshwar Pujara, for instance.
But the tone of the narrative remained fundamentally the same — the quiet batting virtuosos versus the loud Aussie pace pack. Headbangers trying to spoil a Hindustani concert, but parting with hugs and handshakes instead. “Yes, we tend to identify Indian cricket teams with highly skilful batsmen and spinners. The pace trio of Bumrah, Shami and Ishant, we had a good look at them two years ago. But yes, it was evident and widely recognised that Indian fast bowlers can have a decisive impact even back then,” chimed in Haigh.
It brooks no argument that Kohli is the most recognisable Indian cricketer of this milieu, but Bumrah is the most thrilling prospect. The world has got used to Kohli’s greatness; it’s still processing Bumrah’s, still trying to grasp him, still certain that there’s more to him than what he has produced. “Bumrah is, of course, very special because his method is unconventional. And the only way to get used to facing Bumrah is by facing Bumrah. He’s one of a kind. And though there were reservations about his fitness at the start of the season, the huge impact he’s had on IPL proves that there are no injury concerns anymore. And all those worries are behind him, so he becomes a big weapon again,” Haigh notes.
In indispensability, he sometimes shades out Kohli. Not just because the skipper would leave after Adelaide, but also because of the influence Bumrah wields in shaping a Test match. None of Kohli’s six hundreds have fashioned a Test win in Australia, but 15 of the 40 Australia sticks India picked to win the series in 2018-19 belonged to Bumrah. That’s more than one-third of the tally.
Thus, every anticipated sub-layer of the series has a Bumrah thread. Whether David Warner could subdue him? Whether Steve Smith could tame him? Will Bumrah finally chalk out a blueprint to contain the batting colossus? It’s less about the off-side traps for Kohli, but about the plans to defang Bumrah.
Bumrah, thus, is perhaps the first Indian fast bowler to have captured the collective imagination of the country. “There was excitement in the days of the spin quartet. But it was not lasting as Bumrah, partly because it used to be difficult for spinners to bowl in these conditions. Kapil Dev had tremendous appeal, but from a pure fast bowling perspective, Bumrah is on a pedestal of his own,” observes Maxwell.
Just 14 matches into his Test career, he has conquered every shore he has stepped on — England, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, and New Zealand. Barring New Zealand, he has five-wicket hauls elsewhere. The world thus is in awe of him, anxiously waiting for him like once they waited for Tendulkar or Kohli.
The heyday West Indies bowling firm recognises him as one of their own. Viv Richards says he would rather line up to Dennis Lillee. Akram is smitten by his yorker. Ricky Ponting considers himself lucky to not have faced Bumrah in his time. There, thus, is a frenzy unmatched by any Indian fast bowler anywhere in the world. Of course, the Australians know it.
It was one brief moment stuck in time. When, at the stroke of lunch after a dragging hour of attrition, Bumrah produced a magical delivery. A slower ball, that hooped and hemmed, danced and dipped into Shaun Marsh’s toes like a drunken bee. It was unlike anything Marsh had seen, read, heard or even imagined on a cricket field.
It was the precise moment Australia fell in love with Bumrah. The last ball of the 33rd over on December 27, 2018 in Melbourne. That blurring micro-second when he froze everything around him. The moment when he won the spontaneous acceptance of the historically hard-to-convince Australian audience and their harder-to-convince band of former players and pundits. It was, in effect, the equivalent of Sachin Tendulkar’s straight drive off Merv Hughes in Perth in 1992 or Virat Kohli’s cover drive of Ben Hilfenhaus in Adelaide in 2011.
Or Akram’s reverse-swinging viper to nail David Boon at the MCG in 1989. A singular moment stamped in timelessness.
That exact moment when Bumrah deceived Marsh, cynicism gave way to adulation. Midway through the Test, the notorious Bay 13 crowd began barracking him. It meant they began loving him — it’s their perverse way of showing appreciation. To be barracked is to be loved. They tweaked The Cranberries’ grunge anthem to show their appreciation. “What’s in your head/
In your head/Bumrah, Bumrah/Bum…rah…rah…rah,” they crooned on hot, beer-drenched afternoons.
Like the crowd, the retinue of former Australian players-turned-commentators are as awe-struck as they are envious of him. Former Aussie seamer Damien Fleming had told this paper then: “He has given that something extra for the team. Someone who can bowl serious pace, can rattle them with a variety of deliveries, bouncer, yorker and slower balls. It’s tough to think of a better-skilled Indian pace bowler in recent times.”
Another stamp of Aussie acceptance came during a clickbait in-stadium poll in Sydney last time. The announcer roared: “Who do you want to face, the Australian bowlers or Bumrah?” As much as 86 per cent polled for the host bowlers, who before the series were considered the finest quartet in Test cricket at the moment. That tells the story behind the barracking. And there would be more of it in this Test series.
Like Tendulkar and Kohli, Bumrah has made them transcend fierce loyalties, transporting them to an entranced state of mind when nothing around them no longer matters. Just Bumrah and the ball. A wide-eyed bewilderment like when you see something for the first time.
The wicked right-arm of god, perhaps it’s how those of a certain age could describe Bumrah to posterity.