Stumbling in his follow-through, Jasprit Bumrah agonisingly watched the ball vanish into the over the midwicket fence. Martin Guptill’s thunderous pull came as a blow to the bowler. Bumrah fell flat on the strip and stared in anguish before Virat Kohli dragged him back on his feet and consoled him.
But Bumrah seemed beyond consolation, as he dragged himself to the top of the run-up. This was unusual. India’s star pacer is known to always fashion a gracious smile even when he gets hit. This was also a worrying sign for Bumrah, and also for India.
Let’s start with the wickets, the most tangible though not the most definitive indicator of a bowler’s form. Since his comeback from the lower-back stress fracture, he has picked just one wicket in five games. The only wicket was Australia’s No 10, Adam Zampa.
The bowler who used to strike with every 29th ball has now gone wicketless in the last four games, his longest wicket drought in any form of the game. The number, in isolation, is not alarming, but it bewilders because it’s Bumrah, the man until a few months seemed inscrutably faultless.
On that vein, he’s a victim of the gold standard he had set. It’s akin to considering that Kohli has hit a rut when he hasn’t scored a hundred in 10 innings. Or like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo going goal-less for five games on the spin.
Let’s move on to a more rankling worry—the dearth of wicket-taking deliveries he has bowled in this format since the lay-off. Bumrah can whip up spontaneous magic, out of nowhere on any pitch, sometimes taking the pitch out of contention, against some of the most destructive batsmen around the world, with the new ball as well as the old one.
It’s that rare gift that made him such a precious jewel in Kohli’s casket. But in this series, he has been unable to dust up magic deliveries. He has been, well sigh, quite ordinary. Like a striker who has suddenly developed clumsy feet. Worse still, he has not quite looked like he could take a wicket, whereas at his sharpest, he looks like taking one-off every ball.
Let’s probe his lengths. One of the fundamentals of his success in white-ball cricket has been his mastery of various lengths, allied with the ability to conceal his plans. But in this series, somehow, he has lost this immaculate control. For instance, when he tries to go full, he gets fuller, comfortably drivable for the batsmen. When he goes shot, he gets shorter. Like the Guptill six that took him down the ground.
A knockout punch from 20-odd yards out. When he tries back-of-length, the line goes off-kilter. When he tries the yorkers, irrefutably his biggest strength, it goes either too leg-sidish or too off-stumpish. Often, he has struggled to land them too. It has been rarely so with Bumrah. But it has been his narrative arc in this series.
Let’s reflect on his economy rates. In these six games, he has conceded an average of 5.26 runs an over. There were two fine exhibitions of thrift in Rajkot and Bangalore, where he conceded just 3.49 and 3.80. Even 5.26 is decent my modern-day yardsticks. In this series, it shot up to a fraction over six, his most in any ODI series. But Bumrah is neither a keep-one-end-up stock bowler nor an enforcer. But an outright executioner. And his dearth of wickets has only amplified the leaking of runs.
Let’s talk of the Bumrah influence the series. There were several typical moments for him to stamp his prowess. Like when he returned for the second spell in the third match. The contest was still on a knife’s edge, with New Zealand requiring 81 runs off 72 balls. Both Jimmy Neesham and Tom Latham were struggling with their timing. You’d expect Bumrah to inflict the match-defining blow. He did bowl well—his two conceding seven runs—but at that stage India required wickets. He often delivers. But he didn’t. The pair saw him off and tore into Shardul Thakur and Navdeep Saini.
So what then is exactly ailing Bumrah? There are a few apparent signs. All the usual quirks—run-up, action, release, and wrists—haven’t altered, as it sometimes happens when bowlers return from serious injuries. It’s not a speed issue either—a case of him bowling with deliberate restraint to preserve himself for the Tests—as he has been consistently rattling 140 kmph. There’s still that hunger and passion, but somehow he has lost his fabled zip off the surface.
Somehow, the ball doesn’t leap off the surface dramatically. True that most of the surfaces in the series have been bereft of lightning pace. But such factors used to hardly ever bother or hinder him. He has made the ball explode even off anaesthetized surfaces.
Maybe, it could be the calculated caning he received from Kane Williamson in Hamilton when he scientifically dissected his bowling with artful batting. Such setbacks could take time to heal—like a batsman whose morale is wracked by a hostile spell of fast bowling. A sense of trepidation could kick in. Suddenly, you are not the player you once were. And Bumrah clearly was not the bowler as you know.
Bafflingly, he looked perfectly deceptive in the T20 series, where his spells were indispensable in orchestrating the 5-0 triumph. Maybe, the intense calendaring was taking a toll on his body. Maybe, his body has not yet fully attuned to the rigors of the 50-over format.
By the end of the match, though, he regained his cheery demeanor. He had ridden the momentary phase of angst. He would hope the barren spell too shall pass. And how he conquers the storm would be a fascinating narrative waiting to unfold.
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