Towards the end of India’s tour of Sri Lanka earlier this year, Lasith Malinga was under some spotlight as he failed to reinvigorate the team both as stand-in captain and senior player. Alternately, in the Indian camp, young Jasprit Bumrah picked up 15 wickets – the most by a pace bowler in any bilateral ODI contest – and finished man of the series.
“Malinga was with Mumbai Indians since I joined them in 2013 as a 19-year-old,” said Bumrah. “Back then I was just a kid who didn’t even play First-Class cricket. So talking to and learning from him over the last three-four years has been very valuable. Every bit of knowledge is important in international cricket.”
That series was a passing-of-the-baton moment: from Malinga, an erstwhile fearsome bowler who was dropped for the Pakistan series, to Bumrah, who has scaled a new high – the No 1 ranked T20 bowler in the world.
A heady rise
January 2016 was a pivotal month for Indian cricket. It marked the return of Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra to international cricket in preparation for the World T20 at home. MS Dhoni had publicly acknowledged the need to bat at No 5, if not any further higher up. Hardik Pandya too made his maiden international appearance.
In this mix, Bumrah’s ODI and T20I debuts at Sydney and Adelaide escaped general attention. Not many people remember this, but he was not originally part of the ODI squad in Australia. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was injured for that dead-rubber at the SCG, and Bumrah, who arrived early as part of the T20I reinforcements, got to play instead.
Of course, he was not handed the new ball that day. Back then he was just another IPL recruit who needed to bridge the gap between franchise and international cricket. Yet, there was an inherent difference about Bumrah – the ability to fire-in deliveries into the block-hole at will, something then-skipper MS Dhoni had been searching in a pacer for a long time.
It hasn’t even been two years since then, and there is significant change in Bumrah’s bowling already. He has graduated from simply bowling yorkers and has added more variety with clever changes of pace.
And there is a particular delivery in his arsenal that stands out – one that shoots off back-of-length and hurries the batsmen. You won’t see it too often in the death overs. Instead, it is a stock delivery added as recently as the Lankan tour, ever since Bumrah was permanently handed new-ball responsibilities and paired with Kumar.
It was a forced change. During the early phase of the 2017 Champions Trophy, India struggled with the bowling combination, dropping R Ashwin and playing only one spinner, plus Hardik Pandya and three full-time pacers. Kumar and Yadav opened the bowling against Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the first two matches. Defeat at the Oval was an eye-opener, and Kohli had to try alternative tactics.
In the must-win game against South Africa then, Yadav was dropped to make way for Ashwin’s return, and Bumrah was handed the new ball. Mind you, the white ball didn’t swing at all during that tournament. Kumar adapted by tightening his lines. The surprising element was Bumrah, though, who bowled within himself and matched his new-ball partner’s control.
“If the team wants me to bowl with the new ball or first-change, I am happy to do that,” said Bumrah, looking back at his rapid progression in the past 18 months. “With technology coming in, if you have only one or two tricks, people will analyse and line you up. Once they study your videos, they know what to expect. So you have to keep evolving because if you are a one-tricky pony, that won’t work for long.”
His words reflect back to a day before that must-win game against South Africa in June. A team reeling under pressure of expectations practised in the nets. On one side of the square, the batsmen huddled together. Somewhere in the middle, then-coach Anil Kumble worked with Pandya.
At the far end of the square, Bumrah bowled alone, first with the new ball and then later, bowling at two stumps, targeting a shoe placed before them. His elevation in the ensuing five months comes as no surprise, thus.
Time for Tests or limited-overs specialist?
On NDTV this past week, Sunil Gavaskar talked up Bumrah’s chances of a Test call-up. “In South Africa, Australia and England he will be quite a handful with the pace and with the accuracy that he has,” the former India captain said. The legendary cricketer was only giving weighted voice to what is now in public discourse.
Bumrah, in whites, is but the next logical step. If we look at the current crop of India’s fast bowlers, Kumar, Yadav and Mohammed Shami all made their limited-overs’ debuts and then gradually became Test bowlers. Only Ishant Sharma is the odd case herein, playing his first Test before an ODI.
The underlying point though is about progression. Despite ample time spent in India’s First-Class wilderness, no fast bowler worth his salt is hurried into Tests because the step-up from domestic to international cricket is a big one. Like his colleagues, Bumrah has tided over this gap beautifully.
Should he become India’s fifth-choice pacer (ahead of Shardul Thakur) for overseas tours? Yes, undoubtedly. Immediately? Probably not!
There is room for caution here. Is there really a pressing need for Bumrah to make this step up from limited-overs to Tests? “There is a lot of cricket to be played over the next two years, and we need to have a fit bowling attack, not only in Tests but keeping the World Cup in mind as well,” coach Ravi Shastri had said in Lanka.
Since that tour, the primary condition for India’s limited-overs’ run has been to afford “rest” to regular bowlers and try out options. Both Yadav and Shami are primary bowlers in Tests, with Kumar stepping in as and when conditions demand. Sharma is the fourth cog in this wheel, a guiding or helping hand as need arises.
All of them, in the past, have suffered from over-burdened workloads owing to hectic demands across formats, and broken down for lengthy periods. Shami has only just returned from injury. Kumar has only now recently regained his footing after the 2014-’15 nearly broke his back. At different times, Sharma and Yadav have found it tough to maintain consistency across formats. That, for the first time in decades, the Indian pace attack is healthy and raring to go is down to serious workload management over the last year or so.
It serves as a reminder to the selectors that there is no need to rush Bumrah – yet to turn 24 – into Test cricket, not until the 2019 World Cup atleast.