India’s Bowling Attack, Diverse and Deadly, Is Fuelling World Cup Run

Cricket, unlike many sports in India, has for long remained a preserve of the ruling elites. But that has changed.

‘Extra Cover’ is veteran journalist Pradeep Magazine’s column on the Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023.

This piece is as much a celebration of India’s (so far) invincible World Cup cricket team, as it is of its diversity. Never has an Indian team in my living memory or beyond that, been so representative of what India as a nation is. Unity in diversity may sound a trite cliché, especially when we are living in divisive times, but it still best sums up a country which is a melting pot of different religions and castes.

India may be screaming ‘Rohit, Rohit’ and ‘Kohli, Kohli’, but it is the team’s lethal bowling and the variety it has to offer that is leading India’s unstoppable march and makes them easily the most favoured team to win the World Cup.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The five warriors – a Ramgarhia Sikh, two Muslims, one from an OBC (Other Backward Classes) community and an upper caste person – are sending fear down the spine of the batsmen. They are, through their sheer skill and self-belief, entertaining thousands inside the stadium. The thunderous, cacophonic sounds that create a wave of support for the home team must sound like a death knell to the opposition teams.

In this united flavour of Indian national identities, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Kuldip Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja make an impregnable shield, and, probably, hold a lesson for our nation.

There is something very strange and even intriguing about our nation, where caste and religion are the two most important markers of identity – yet we are shy to acknowledge it publicly. Those who control the levers of power would like us to believe caste does not matter but are proud of their upper caste lineage. Cricket, unlike many sports in India, has for long remained a preserve of the ruling elites. Most cricketers of the past may not have come from rich backgrounds, but were mostly city-bred middle-class Brahmins. Sure, Muslims and a few Sikhs or an odd Christian did break into the Indian team, but by and large, it has always been a struggle to find lower caste representation in the team.

With the 80s’ cricketing revolution, symbolised by India winning the 1983 World Cup and the emergence of the dynamic Kapil Dev, a change started taking place. Kapil himself was from a non-cricketing centre like Chandigarh. When he lifted the World Cup in the Lord’s balcony, Kapil ignited a billion dreams. For young kids in the lanes and bylanes of cities or village maidans it was no longer a fantasy to aspire to play for India.

By the late 90s and finally in the 21st century, boys from small towns were finding a place in the team: Mahendra Singh Dhoni being its best example and his 2011 World Cup winning six, played with imperious nonchalance, remains an image no Indian can forget. This mix of big-city boys and small-town aspirants, backed by an expanding base and infrastructure for the game, has today propelled India to the number one team position in the world.

The diversity we are talking about is obviously spreading and today an Indian cricket team no longer finds itself falling short of the religious/caste social matrix.

I would not be overstating the fact that Jasprit Bumrah is a phenomenal bowler, whose unusual skills and intuitive understanding of his craft make him almost unplayable at times.

Then there is Mohammed Shami, who follows the more conventional path. With the swerving ball, released after great dexterity from his cocked wrists, he creates magic to rattle the stumps.

Mohammad Siraj, the least experienced of the trio but never short of effort and enthusiasm, keeps surprising the batsmen with his pace and movement.

And if these three were not a handful, the batsmen now have to deal with a different challenge.

The foxy, wily, Kuldeep Yadav, aided by steely wrists, spins the ball both ways. His control of the pace, impeccable line and length leave the batsmen bewildered. Should he go forward or back? Will the ball turn away, come in or straighten? He is doomed in this web of confusion and uncertainty.

Ravindra Jadeja is exceptional. He is like a locomotive machine, which requires no greasing and can deliver ball after ball with variations, just minimum enough to fox the batsman. His control over his length, his athleticism and calm in nerve-wracking situations make him simply an indispensable member of the team.

A vital cog in India’s diversity is missing from the team: a Dalit. What does it speak of a nation when a community that constitutes about a fifth of the population has no representation in its most popular sport? If even today, we have to go decades back and cite Palwankar Baloo as an example of a Dalit having played for India, it goes to show that we have failed the community. There is not enough space, access and encouragement to break through a systemic malaise.

Let us for now celebrate the progress that has been made and hope that there is more in the future. As India inches closer towards its goal of winning the World Cup, it is for the Indian fans and the teeming crowds to realise diversity is a strength. It is to be celebrated and not drowned out by divisive slogans.

Pradeep Magazine is a cricket writer and the author of two books, Not Quite Cricket and the recently published Not Just Cricket, A Reporter’s Journey Through Modern India.