As a child, one’s earliest infatuation point with cricket inevitably involves the bowling action of a fast bowler. Few can claim to have grown up loving the sport and not have stories to tell of their efforts to perfect the action of a bowler they idolised.
Shoaib Akhtar’s marauding run-up, Curtly Ambrose’s loading of arm, Darren Gough’s delivery stride, or Dale Steyn’s impeccable release – kids on streets spend years mimicking this to perfection, only to realise the impression itself doesn’t quite do the job.
The end result turns out to be so mediocre, the romanticised notion immediately shatters. It was all pretty and lovely in their imagination. But you were not really your heroes. Nothing close.
And yet, despite this rather crushing reality check, the obsession with emulating fast bowlers never quite wears down. After all, it’s the visual appeal of the art that makes fast bowling so captivating.
And then comes in Jasprit Bumrah. The Indian pace spearhead operates in his own way. While few can doubt the pedigree, Bumrah hasn’t quite graduated from the school of fast bowling that young boys on the streets obsess over. You watch him go about his business and cannot help but think he was hell-bent on subverting the inherent charm associated with the art.
Bumrah’s action can be described as the perfect antidote to the aesthetics of fast bowling. And that’s being quite generous. At no point in his run-up, does he actually run. He briskly walks, takes a couple of jittery hops, opens his arms wide and almost jerks the ball out of his hand as opposed to releasing it. The non-bowling arm points to the first slip creating an impossible angle for batsmen to deal with where everything seems coming in to them. The action makes Bumrah a practically impossible bowler to leave no matter how certain one is of his off-stump.
Though Bumrah had played substantial amount of first-class cricket before making his Test debut in early 2018, he was largely being seen as a limited-overs specialist up until that point. And it wasn’t for no reason. The angle that he so much relied on allowed him to relentlessly attack the stumps but it was hard to think of him developing a ball leaving the right-hander – a skill absolutely crucial for a bowler to crack Test cricket.
Bumrah could bowl the perfect yorker wide of off-stump, could vary his speeds without changing his action much and was painfully accurate with his lines – an unhittable white-ball specimen. But that ought to have been the ceiling of his prowess. Because those defensive skills, priceless as they may be in shorter formats, are hardly of much use in Tests where a batsman isn’t actively looking to score off every ball.
Well, six years since that debut at Cape Town and any hint of uncertainty over Bumrah’s lack of suitability to play Tests looks incredibly naïve now. His lengths adjust seamlessly the moment he switches between formats, his conventional swing is just as sharp as anyone’s, he’s lethal when the ball starts to reverse, and that awkward angle of release has proved to be the biggest point of difference since it never allows the batters to leave him on line with any real confidence.
Look no further than England’s Joe Root in the first two Tests of the ongoing series. Contrary to the media murmur, India hasn’t resorted to hostile pitches straightaway and instead showed faith in the depth of their bowling reserves.
When Root walked in to bat in England’s second innings of the opening Test at Hyderabad, the pitch was beautifully paced to put on a big score. But a sharp in-ducker from Bumrah is the last thing one wants to face at the start of his innings. Root was beaten on the inside edge and caught plumb in front of stumps.
That shouldn’t really have mattered when he came out to bat on day two of the second Test at Vizag. The pitch was again nicely paced but Rohit Sharma wasted no time and threw the ball to Bumrah. With reverse swing on offer, Bumrah kept tempting Root on playing at one outside his off-stump.
Root wasn’t going to budge easily but the amount of doubt Bumrah creates in a batter’s head becomes impossibly hard to negate. Root let two go but poked at the third one. The ball that breached his defence at Hyderabad ought to have played on his mind. He simply couldn’t have allowed for that to repeat. Well, he succeeded at that but only to edge at one leaving him and furnish an easiest of grabs to the first slip.
The two dismissals are an ode to Bumrah’s ability to manufacture wickets on surfaces not particularly conducive to fast bowling. But Bumrah wasn’t done showboating just yet. What followed Root’s dismissal at Vizag is hands down the highlight of the series so far and in all likelihood won’t be topped for the three remaining Tests.
Ollie Pope, England’s fidgety middle order rookie, never quite looks at ease in the middle. But he’d proved to be India’s unexpected nemesis in their defeat in the first Test. At Vizag too, he’d been off to a shaky start and was just about surviving while looking like getting out every other ball. Until Bumrah decided to end his struggle once and for all.
Few things in cricket match the aesthetics of a reverse swinging yorker of surgical precision. It feels so rewarding to watch. It’s reel material. It’s the bowler announcing he’s in charge and that the batter is nothing more than an expendable pawn in this game.
When Bumrah tailed one back in to Pope, he didn’t have to say any of those things aloud but Pope heard them all. Loud and clear. It could’ve been a batsman of much higher standing than Pope’s and it still wouldn’t have mattered. That ball was meant for a higher purpose than merely uprooting the stumps and earn the bowling team advantage. It was to remind everyone watching what ruthless, remorseless, lethal fast bowling looked like. And who’s to say the ball didn’t meet its purpose?
That Bumrah is the single most complete fast bowler of his generation is no longer an opinion. It’s a demonstrable, definitive fact. His numbers pass every possible caveat one can conjure up and but for Australia’s Pat Cummins – another generational bowler – nobody comes close to him. Factor in his ridiculous output in the shorter formats and we’re quite possibly looking at a bowler of the rarest possible breed.
Not being the easiest on the eye has deferred Bumrah’s elevation to being regarded as a bona fide legend of this sport. It takes time for years and years of bias and conditioning to wear off. Our eyes are trained to view great fast bowlers a certain way and Bumrah looks like none of those things.
Adjectives like jaffa and peach wouldn’t be thrown as leniently to describe his deliveries as they’d be for a bowler with a more traditional action who looked the part.
‘Must be the angle the batsmen struggle to pick for the time being.’
‘These anomalies are eventually found out.
‘They always are. It’s a matter of time.’
Well, the anomaly never stopped. Beating the batter on either edge, lifting the ball unusually off the length, setting up a gorgeously deceptive slower one, or throwing in the sucker-punch with a searing yorker, Bumrah’s repertoire sets him apart from any of his contemporaries.
He has the discipline and persistence to repeatedly bowl into the channel and induce mistakes and at the same time possesses the weapons to relentlessly attack when he wants to. This allows him to minimise the prize of the tradeoff between accuracy and intent. He takes his wickets conceding the fewest runs, taking fewer balls than most, and manages to not leak easy runs in the process. He strikes the impossible balance between average, strike rate, and economy rate. Once again, among active fast bowlers, only Pat Cummins rivals these numbers.
Bumrah spent nearly a whole year away from cricket and only just managed to be ready for the World Cup last year. That back has long proved to be a kryptonite. Former greats like Michael Holding and Shoaib Akhtar have expressed concern over his action that they think forces him to expend too much shoulder strength to generate pace.
During his year-long absence, it wasn’t out of order to wonder whether he’d ever return the same bowler he once was. Well, if anything, he’s only returned a better bowler. It of course reflects in his stats but a bowler’s rhythm can instantly be told from how the ball’s coming out of his hand. And ever since he’s returned, it’s coming out beautifully. It swings prodigiously, his tools of offence are sharper than ever, and his pace hasn’t dipped one bit.
There’s nothing to tell he’s put his troubled back behind him for good though. With him not having tweaked his action to any considerable degree, it could recur any time. And it could be the next one or the one after that renders him a pale shadow of himself.
But while he’s operating at the level he is currently, every moment is worth savouring, storing, recording in reels, and writing verbose essays such as this one about. Because every single one of these moments is incredibly satisfying. Because the world has very likely not seen a fast bowler of this kind before. India most certainly has not.