One is India’s most aggressive pacer, the other its most stylish batsman. With Jasprit Bumrah and Rohit Sharma the only Indians to feature in the ICC’s Team of the Tournament post-World Cup, despite the team’s semi-final loss, their friends rewind to talk of another time — when the impatient and talented Bumrah broke car tail-lights and more on his way to the Indian squad, and how the laidback and elegant Sharma set off on a new personal innings.
Uttarayan 2013, Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. It’s that time of the year when the sky is dotted with colourful kites and the air carries the aroma of traditional Uttarayan fare — undhiyu, jalebi, ber and such. Everyone’s out on their rooftops.
That year in Ahmedabad, on one of the terraces of a crowded cluster of two-storey blocks, a group of six friends, all budding cricketers, were slouched against the walls. They watched the kites soar, and their dreams crash. Few words were spoken.
For three years, the six had dominated Ahmedabad’s school and university cricket. They had dreamt of playing for India. Now, one of them, the best of the lot by some distance, was giving up after repeatedly being ignored by selectors. He had declared his intention of migrating to Canada in a year’s time if things didn’t go his way.
Some did not take him seriously because of the awkward bowling action. Others didn’t pay much attention because he hadn’t taken enough wickets. Such was his degree of desperation that the teenager had started consulting astrologers. “It’ll happen, it’s written in your stars,” many told him. But he was getting restless. The teenager, raised by a single parent after his father died when he was seven, did not have the luxury of time. His father had migrated from Punjab to Ahmedabad to be part of a family business, but it had folded up and the Bumrahs couldn’t afford another failure.
Parth Shah, on whose terrace the group had congregated, recalls his teammate’s state of mind. “He thought, ‘In gadhon ke saath khel raha hoon, mera kuchch nahin ho raha (I’m headed nowhere playing with these idiots)…’ And we thought, ‘We are playing with him and even then we are headed nowhere!’.”
That impatient, talented and ambitious teenager was Jasprit Bumrah.
Ten days ago, India’s World Cup ended in a heart-breaking semifinal defeat to New Zealand. But in Bumrah, there’s a silver lining. Over the last month-and-a-half, he has reasserted his position as the country’s most versatile bowler — one who gets early wickets, provides breakthroughs in mid-overs and has mastered death-overs bowling. And he is doing all this remaining very economical.
With 18 wickets in nine matches, he was not India’s leading wicket-taker this World Cup, but it was his frugality that set him apart. He was captain Virat Kohli’s go-to man in crunch situations and delivered almost every time, like that match against Afghanistan where he took two wickets in middle overs, turning the game in India’s favour.
In the commentary box, the experts did not sound unsure when they called the 25-year-old the “best pacer in the world”. Bumrah also made it to the post-World Cup ICC Team of the Tournament — the only other Indian on the list was Rohit Sharma.
Bumrah’s exploits at the World Cup are the talk of his hometown, a city known for its sharp business acumen and thrift. Perhaps reflected in Bumrah not giving away much to the batsmen.
Apart from this trait though, he isn’t much of a Amdavadi. The man, whose bread and butter is speed, is the antithesis of the city’s leisurely pace. Unlike Saurashtra and Baroda, which have a rich cricketing heritage, Ahmedabad has been a cricket watcher’s city. While it has produced cricketers such as Jasu Patel and Parthiv Patel, the city is more famous for Motera, the stadium that has witnessed some of Indian cricket’s historic moments. Sunil Gavaskar scored his 10,000th run in Ahmedabad, Kapil Dev became the world’s highest Test wicket-taker in this city.
“Here, if one has to choose between dhandho (business) and ramat (sports), the former triumphs,” says Siddharth Trivedi, a Ranji Trophy veteran from Ahmedabad who coached Bumrah in his early cricketing days.
But over the last decade, as the city has started to resemble Mumbai with its towering apartments and Metro construction, Ahmedabad is also aspiring to mirror another crucial element: Mumbai’s cricket culture.
And Bumrah is at the forefront of this shift.
Goyal Intercity, in the congested suburb of Thaltej, is a regular middle-class colony. In between a few towers, there’s an open space — the ‘ground’ where it all began for Bumrah.
Here, he is remembered for two things — being the only boy who owned two hockey sticks and for breaking tail-lights of cars with his bowling. “We played hockey on the concrete ground in our society. But cricket was everything,” says Preet Mehta, Bumrah’s childhood friend.
Preet, Meet, Jeet, and Jasprit may sound like a cheesy boy-band quartet, but all they ever did was play cricket along with two others, Jilay Shah and Sunny Bhatia. When not playing, they’d meet up at Mehta’s house and watch re-runs of old matches.
The rules of the game here were simple — bowler who dismissed the batsman would get a chance to bat. But Bumrah was never interested in batting.
Bumrah had a short run-up even then, an adjustment he was forced to make considering the size of the ‘ground’. And his bowling action changed almost daily, depending on which bowler he had seen on TV that day. “He imitated actions of Makhaya Ntini, Bret Lee, Shahid Afridi and Wasim Akram. He could bowl really nicely with his left arm as well,” Mehta says.
No matter whom he imitated, Bumrah remained quick. So much so that he terrorised the colony children with his pace. “If we hit him for four or six, the next ball would either be a bouncer or beamer,” recalls Mehta, who works with an IT firm now.
Bumrah, quite literally, never stopped. He would spend afternoons practising alone by bowling against the wall. To ensure he did not disturb his mother Daljeet Bumrah, who retired as a school principal earlier this year, he started aiming right at the floor skirting so that the ball would rebound straight back at him, without the thud.
Finally, in 2009, Daljeet enrolled her 14-year-old at a cricket academy in her school.
Ketul Purohit, Bumrah’s coach at the academy, admits his first impression of the boy wasn’t great. He had a slight built and “a strange run-up, an ugly action with no sense of direction. Ekdum zero”.
Trivedi, the Ranji Trophy player who occasionally coached the trainees at the academy along with Purohit and his father Kishor, says Bumrah’s action presented a dilemma. The run-up back then was more or less the same as it is now — skipping and stuttering. But as he leapt to deliver, his right arm extended so far to the left that coaches feared he would lose his balance and fall. “We were tempted to modify his action but then we realised it’s his main weapon,” says Trivedi, one of the stars of the Rajasthan Royals team that won the inaugural IPL in 2008.
Parth Shah, Bumrah’s teammate at the academy who is now a banker, says most players could not even see the ball when he bowled. He started shattering stumps with his pace, forcing Purohit to buy the hard plastic variety. Arth Naik, another teammate, says Bumrah often lost his cool when he got hit by batsmen or if a teammate dropped a catch. “He was at a level higher than us, so he expected the same from everyone.”
The team tolerated his “tantrums”, knowing they would be nothing without him. Shah recalls the final of an under-17 tournament against a Rajasthan team. “He bowled a bouncer that broke the batsman’s ribs.” Naik, a cinematographer, chips in: “Baaki sab log andar hee out ho gaye (The batsmen waiting for their turn were quivering). He took five wickets in six balls in one of the games — that was his first hat-trick.”
Soon, the teams started to be extra cautious while playing Bumrah. The smallest of things riled him, but his teammates made sure his temper worked to their advantage.
“So just before we went out to bowl, we would taunt him for never purchasing a cricket kit. That would upset him and the anger was taken out on the batsmen,” Shah says. “But he was like that on the field. Off it, Jasprit was very shy.”
Or so his friends at the academy thought.
Mehta, the childhood friend, describes Bumrah as a movie buff who can parrot dialogues from most movies, especially the ones that star Paresh Rawal and Rajpal Yadav. “He also listens to a lot of music — mainly Punjabi,” Mehta says. “Also, he is the only one in our group who has a PlayStation so we have our FIFA sessions at his house.”
A football fan, Bumrah’s favourite player is former Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Last year, Bumrah tweeted a picture of Ibrahimovic along with one of his quotes: “Nobody believed I could do it. Everybody was trash-talking. They thought I will go away because I have a big mouth… But I had these dreams of where I would end up. And now here I am. Let’s go back 15 years and all I saw then has come true….”
Bumrah need not go back 15 years, only to that Uttarayan of six years ago, to know how far he has come.
Rohit Sharma’s friends chuckle as they tell you that the biggest change in him over the years is how he has moved on from watching the 1999 Amitabh Bachchan turkey Sooryavansham every time it’s on television to joining the starkly upper-crust world in its breathless anticipation of Game of Thrones in 2019.
As he tries his best to fit in — a recurring theme that runs parallel to his own professional life — it’s his wife Ritika Sajdeh, an astute celebrity manager, who has tugged him into an eclectic lifestyle where cricket sits neatly arranged in a compartment alongside family downtime with on-demand video-streams, plus his new passion for wildlife conservation.
Sharma, 32, was always marvellously entertaining to watch, got the odd double centuries and a lot of attention from cricket connoisseurs. But the record-breaking five centuries this World Cup — before that one costly failure against New Zealand in the semi-final, when he got out for 1 — has brought Sharma’s career to a juncture where criticism of his inconsistency seems like the disappointment of a distant past.
“There has been a big change in Rohit. Ritika and captaincy of Mumbai Indians played a big role in that,” says Sharma’s friend and former India cricketer Abhishek Nayar, adding that Rohit has mellowed from his early days, when he would be on short fuse and was almost always quick to react.
Once, a tabloid put out Sharma’s name as among Mumbai’s many celebrities who, the daily alleged, “demanded” VIP number-plates from the transport office. While Sharma, playing with the Hyderabad IPL franchise then, was hopping mad about having made no such demand, he shyly admitted to friends that he was flattered to find his photograph alongside Mukesh Ambani’s and Amitabh Bachchan’s.
A few years later, he would lead the Ambani-owned Mumbai Indians, winning three IPL titles. But crucially, as IPL captain, he would hold his own while interacting with the cream of Pedder Road’s affluent crowd and a parade of celebrities from the film, finance and political world, who sashayed in and out of South Bombay’s floodlit cricket stratosphere.
Leading a team which couldn’t be seen failing for lack of proactive leadership, Sharma smartened up. Gone was the laidback man smug in his lazy elegance. His shots were always crisp, but now the strategising got starched. It showed in his media interactions and it kept him on his toes on the field. The shift from Borivali to Bandra, passed via South Bombay.
Even before he could make it to the Indian team, Sharma was termed the next big thing from Mumbai. Former chairman of selectors Kiran More had first nudged Sachin Tendulkar to watch out for “this boy Rohit Sharma”. The time he had on him to play his shots and his bat speed had started a buzz around him much before Virat Kohli fetched up.
“Rohit was always at another level. But he is just scoring on a consistent basis now. He is not over-confident. He can keep doing the same thing over and over again without trying to do something different always,” Nayar explains.
With 648 runs from nine games, Sharma scored 26 per cent of India’s total runs at the World Cup. Credited with playing the shot of the tournament — the lofted straight-drive against Bangladesh — Sharma managed manic hitting without the accompanying adrenaline rush.
Much of Sharma’s prodigious talent lay in his sublime wrists that conjured magic, but at the start of this decade, he carried a bit of a chiplet on his shoulders. He would often get salty about criticism of his technique. That, combined with his supreme confidence while taking on any bowler, meant his self-assuredness would come off as a boast, with no fitness to
back it up. This was pre-2011, two World Cups ago.
A snub back then jolted him, steering him towards the treadmill eight years ago. But it was only when he settled into a culture of compulsive success at Mumbai Indians that he found himself in a happy space from where he could summon perfection in his batting, almost at will.
Juice at Chowpatty and dosa near Babulnath — is what former international Pragyan Ojha and his one-time IPL team-mate remembers about the times he spent with Sharma, whom he has known since their U-16 days. Bad days on the field or late nights after the IPL turnstiles emptied out at Wankhede — the juice and dosa were as common as the impromptu long drives and wild parties of their early-20s.
Ojha would meet him after an IPL game this summer, and find a man politely excusing himself from the late nights and completely immersed in his family — wife Ritika and daughter Samaira. “Since he has become a father, his priorities are clear. There is always pressure to perform when you represent the country but now he is enjoying his game more than before because of his fatherhood. Sometimes things don’t go your way and the team loses. But he goes back to the hotel and his daughter is waiting for him. So he switches off unknowingly and relaxes,” says Ojha.
A tad tetchy earlier, Sharma can charm and chortle at press conferences now. Shouldering the burden of MI’s batting, leading them day in day out, he has binned his quick temper. “He speaks in press conferences as if he is with friends. There is humour and happiness,” says Ojha.
As captain, Sharma has the eye for talent and confidence to delegate, trusting his team members to do their job once picked into the eleven. Ojha, whom he backed even after the offie’s action underwent correction, and Praveen Kumar, whom he helped get out of depression, swear by the man. “After I changed my action, I played only one Ranji Trophy game but Rohit ensured I got picked for IPL. He trusts people and knows if he backs them, they’ll do anything for him. It’s the quality of a leader,” Ojha says.
When the now retired pacer Praveen Kumar, who played for both the Indian team and Mumbai Indians, was battling his own demons, Sharma rallied behind him and convinced him of his skills. “He won’t say one thing to my face and something else altogether behind my back. Rohit is a genuine man, a real friend,” attests Kumar.
Rohit’s loyalty to friends is legendary. He once got into a scrap while playing tennis-ball cricket with the rival team members. With bursting bravado, he challenged his opponents to a fist-fight, only to turn back and realise the rest of his team had fled. He got a beating and never played tennis-ball cricket again. The friendships, mercifully, didn’t end.
There are more stories of his friendships. Back in 2006, while Sharma played for India-A in Australia, he came to know that Vicky, the watchman at his grandparents’ home in Borivali (he stayed with them then), had been sacked by the building secretary for giving Sharma and his friends easy access to the terrace, bypassing society rules. Sharma then called Vicky from Australia, saying he could now work for him. Even as India’s lethal opener upgraded from Borivali to Bandra, he ensured he kept a room for Vicky in his new home.
“Not all his friends are cricketers, but he has no airs and treats everyone with respect,” Ojha says, adding that he can easily float between conversations — from a ’90s dubsmash with one buddy to the latest Swiss watch with another.
“He was not scoring during the last IPL that concluded a couple of weeks before the World Cup but was in control of the situation. It was just a matter of being calm,” Nayar recalls.
The calm before the five-century storm.