There’s an inter-island duel of the late 1970s that’s etched in Caribbean folklore. A Shield encounter between Leeward Islands and Barbados in 1978, wherein half of the West Indies pace quartet, plus a robust young quick, faced off against Viv Richards at his swaggering peak. Richards made 12 and 3, and noted commentator Joseph ‘Reds’ Perreira recounts that the bowlers were so “ruthless that the great batsman struggled to put the bat on the ball”.
“He tried to counter-attack but simply couldn’t. It was one of the most hostile bowling performances I have seen in Caribbean domestic cricket,” Perreira, 80, says.
Two of the bowlers he faced were teammates — Joel Garner and Colin Croft. The third would join them soon, the most cunning and deadliest of them all, Malcolm Marshall. When all of them were not playing, they still had fearsome bowlers like Sylvester Clarke and Wayne Daniel. Proof of their menace was Richards’s aggregate of 20.38 against the bitter rivals.
Richards struggles to recollect the aforementioned match but admits he struggled more against some of his own bowlers than against adversaries in international cricket. “You know these guys, when they were bowling at full tilt, were incredibly difficult to face. I sometimes felt sorry for the opposition batsmen, and have thanked my stars that I don’t have to face them,” he says.
It’s with similar awe of the bowler and pity for batsmen that Virat Kohli speaks of Jasprit Bumrah, the sparkling jewel in his crown. “As a batsman standing in slips, you can feel for the batsman who’s playing him. We are lucky to have him in our team, and not the opposition,” he says.
Then clearing his throat, Kohli proclaims: “He’s the most complete bowler in the world.”
While it’s debatable, most batsmen who have faced Bumrah would concur. The debates and discussions, henceforth, are no longer about whether or not he is currently the best bowler in the world; they are about whether he might even be the best fast bowler India has ever produced, whether we are watching the grand narrative of India’s biggest match-winner in Tests unfold.
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The qualifier ‘in Tests’ in the statement above is primarily because the shorter versions are intrinsically batsmen’s games. You have to outscore the opponents than out-bowl them. Undoubtedly, Bumrah is skilled at limited-over games — it’s through his IPL impact that he sprung into national consciousness — but in the shorter versions, he has to work within the framework of the format.
In Tests, then, one and a half years after his debut in South Africa, he seems on his way to eclipse the compilation of legendary batsmen, the ceaseless production line of masterful spinners, or the great all-rounder Kapil Dev. Bumrah, obviously, doesn’t have the body of work. Comparisons, thus, will be skewed and hazy. The sample size is too small, but greatness doesn’t require the certification of time to shower itself on rare sporting talents. Like Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer or Lionel Messi.
The sheer skill-set is incredible — he bowls at rapid pace, can hurl bouncers with as much felicity as yorkers, depending on mood and conditions, can bowl in-swingers and out-swingers, rip in cross-seam cutters, slower balls, and is by his admission working on “a lot of deliveries”. He transcends climes — heat and humidity, chill and breeze — pitch conditions — green-tops, shirtfronts or turners — is skilled at harnessing deviation with the hand-stitched Duke and machine-wound Kookaburra. He straddles formats — he’s a beast in each.
In 12 Tests, he has already set the world afire, nabbed five-fors in every country he has toured, taken important wickets, logged in long shifts under the scorching sun and operated in small bursts. He is already appreciated by legendary fast bowlers and feared by contemporary batsmen. He has made himself an object of not just curiosity but inquisition for scientists.
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So much so that it’s hard to believe that Burmah is just 12 matches into his Test career. His record-setting sequences are quantum leaps, in the truest sense of the term: a shift from one state to another, without passing through the conventional intermediate stages. The more he’s playing the more involved he’s getting, controlling the game as well as killing it, enticing then withdrawing, probing before striking, each delivery a mini-battle. Every time there is a question raised, a challenge presented, he answers it resoundingly. The company and control of Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma is vital but it is also, in part, owed to him. Then there are the intangible sensations: the control, the speed, the vision, the simplicity, the sheer, jaw-dropping ridiculousness of it. The relentlessness of his brilliance; he has made the incredible routine.
Capricious as sport is, there are no guarantees that he will fulfil his potential — injuries and loss of form could kick in as his career progresses, he will get older too. But for now, the promise and potential Bumrah exudes is as intoxicating as it’s exhilarating. Kohli would vouch.
It must have been a bowler who declared that “bowlers win matches; batsmen save them” in an attempt to attach a bit more glam to a sweat-soaked vocation. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth there. At Test level, there is no victory without the capture of 20 wickets.
Andy Roberts corrects it: “It’s fast bowlers who win matches.” All great sides in the history of the game had terrific fast bowlers. Donald Bradman had Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston. Steve Waugh had Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee. The edifice of world-beating sides is constructed on the sweat and skill of their fast bowlers. Chalk off any of these names from the team list and the invulnerability diminishes instantly.
For instance, when did West Indies start winning matches? Not merely when they had Richards, Alvin Kallicharran and Clive Lloyd amidst the ranks, but when they assembled the pace-bowling quartet. They had different avatars, but the endeavour was the same, raze the adversaries with spine-chilling pace and aggressive bowling. The inflection point is the record India conjured in Port of Spain, where the visiting batsmen had put runs on the board and the team was stacked with three spinners to defend 403 in the fourth innings.
In his book, Cricket Revolution, Bob Willis explains that the loss in Trinidad was when Lloyd’s ‘nuclear warheads’ were launched. “When the West Indies were humiliated in Trinidad, Clive Lloyd went to Clyde Walcott and hatched this plan. He said that on any surface anywhere in the world, he was better off with four fast bowlers. I have always thought that that was when his nuclear warheads were launched.” For decades, they waged cricket’s equivalent of a nuclear war.
Explains Roberts: “West Indies didn’t always have good batsmen, but the bowlers compensated for it. Even when we had Lloyd and Richards, it’s we who won the games, taking 20 wickets.”
Similarly, no matter how many runs Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara could accumulate, it boils down to the bowlers’ ability to blast out 20 wickets. In essence, bowlers are the centre of Test cricket’s universe. In India’s case, Bumrah. Not that batsmen are peripheral, you need them to pile totals, but it’s the bowlers who deliver the knockout punch. While Kohli could be the Richards of this team, Bumrah could be the Marshall with the rest rallying around him.
Mohammad Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar never tasted wins outside Asia as captains. The tally improved during the reign of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni because they began producing fast bowlers; they had Zaheer Khan plus a brigade of pacers that checked in and checked out. Armed with this ammo, Kohli has already become India’s most successful away skipper — his record in SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) with Bumrah in the XI is a competitive 4-5. To tweak the old aphorism, a captain is not as good as the team, but as good as his bowlers. And we know how good Bumrah is.
In a way, this is a cricket’s version of the Great Man Theory, the concept that human history is changed by individuals doing things, not by wider structural forces. And Bumrah is on his way to changing not just history but the trajectory too. From a batsmen-obsessed country, India could wake up to the thrills of fast bowling. They already have.
Bumrah is too polite and self-effacing for a speedster, as far as archetypes go. “I’m still new to the game, learning new stuff from everyone. They are all more experienced than I’m,” he says, a day after notching up a hat-trick to cap off a fiery spell.
Only that some of his colleagues would disagree. Late last year, Ishant had said in Melbourne: “Bumrah came fully formed. He has nothing more to learn.”
What Ishant implied was that Bumrah’s more evolved than most other wet-behind-the-ears seamers of his age. Ishant could relate to himself — as he laboured for years to become the bowler he is. When he burst forth, he couldn’t make the ball move off the seam or make it hold the line as he does now. There was full-length reluctance like Javagal Srinath.
Shami took time to banish his scattergun reputation, Umesh Yadav is still striving. Zaheer realigned his action, Srinath took ages to develop the out-swinger.
The last bowler who resembled the real deal was S Sreesanth, whose temperament neutered his talent. Kapil never had Bumrah’s unnerving pace while Bumrah could swing the ball both ways.
Still, Bumrah is so fully devoted to his craft that he believes he has more to learn — Test cricket requires such dedication to fitness and a craving for perfection. In England, he was keenly observing Stuart Broad and James Anderson go about the business. There’s clarity in what he wants and how he can achieve that. He is as level-headed as he’s clear-headed.
“In England, when I was not playing, I was bowling in the nets, I was keeping an eye on what was happening. So try to copy that in the nets. I always try to learn, I always try to ask questions. I try and keep an eye on the opposition as well, what is working for them, maybe try and learn from them. Do your research, do your homework, keep an eye on the lengths of the different grounds and different players, what they do,” he outlined the essence of his approach during a press conference in Adelaide.
These are qualities that have convinced Kohli his gun bowler is en route to scaling greatness. And in him, ingrained with the potential to be India’s biggest match-winner in Tests, Kohli sees the shimmering crown of the World Test Championship. Finally, Indian cricket has its nuclear warhead.