Can India still rely on Jasprit Bumrah to be their spearhead?

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Jasprit Bumrah has come under the scanner recently after he was confirmed to miss the World T20 Down Under

(BCCI)

Can India still rely on Jasprit Bumrah to be their spearhead?

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Gantavya Adukia

10/17/2022

Yes, we are going there, so buckle up.

Every few years in cricket, there comes along an enigma – an unstoppable force operating in a realm beyond ordinary minds, unwilling to seek validation from lesser mortals with an inferior comprehension of their genius. 

And the limelight perpetually loves them, even if they try their hardest to shy away from it. Their mysterious uniqueness exudes a charisma that is intangible and yet, undeniable.

Alas, they are bound by the same set of limitations as the rest of us mortals. Fallible to the same circumstances, victims of the same unpredictability. Unfortunately, that is always enough to determine whether they are remembered as history makers, or as a mere footnote in the history books – begging the question ‘what if’.

Monica Seles might have been the greatest player to pick up a racquet, yet she’ll never be entitled to the claim of being the greatest tennis player. O Fenomeno Ronaldo’s legacy might remain buried in the minds that lived and breathed his brilliance, but he’ll always be overshadowed by the modern freaks of nature– by statistical anomalies that hold no mirror to his abilities on the field. At this point in history, one cannot help but wonder whether Jasprit Bumrah’s name will be enshrined in golden letters or be subdued in small cases in the books of destiny.

The 28-year-old pacer is among India’s greatest match-winners in their modern cricketing history. Having made his all-format debut just four years ago, Bumrah already has a host of iconic performances to his name. He is one of the few bowlers equally capable across all formats of cricket, courtesy of a diverse skillset that is unparalleled. Legendary fast bowlers of yore have simply built up a career on the back of excellence of the highest degree in a particular skill, be it the king of swing Jimmy Anderson or metronome Glenn Mcgrath. Yet, one could argue that regardless of whether it is the bouncer, the yorker, the slower ball or simply troubling batsmen with sheer pace and accurate lines and lengths – Bumrah stands atop the current charts across all those respects.

The Ahmedabad-born erudite derives a lot of his strength from a unique bowling action. Despite his short run-up, Bumrah crosses the 90 mph mark frequently, seemingly catching the batsmen off-guard. Further, his unusually high release point behind the front foot makes him difficult to read. In his 20s, Bumrah developed a one-of-a-kind outswinger created by his wrist movement, which causes the ball to first drift inwards and then shape away sharply. The backspin in his reverse swing is another weapon that has had batters in a fix over the years, making him highly effective with the old ball as well.

However, above all, it is the right-arm quick’s understanding of the game and discipline, despite the relatively limited experience on the international circuit, that makes him a potent weapon. Bumrah is clearly what is labelled a ‘thinking bowler’, capable of adapting his game to the demands of the encounter. All in all, what Jasprit ‘Boom Boom’ Bumrah brings to the table is special and in many ways, irreplaceable.

That being said, India has encountered a golden generation of speedy rockstars with more viable options now than ever. The fast-bowling revolution instigated under Virat Kohli’s reign continues to work wonders, with many of the same protagonists still being at the top of the team’s hierarchy.

Namesakes Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj have impressed the most with the red ball, troubling batsmen all across the world with their ability to swing the ball both ways. However, their struggles with economy in white ball cricket are well known, especially in the shortest format of the game. Neither possesses the required depth of variations to be adept in differing pressure situations in T20s as is evident in their numbers.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar, meanwhile, has emerged as a specialist in T20s, especially when playing in India and England. The 32-year-old is known to elicit wild swing in unassuming conditions but his lack of pace keeps him from deriving the same success in African and Australian conditions. Kumar has been abandoned from the nation’s Test setup for a while now, having last donned the all-whites in 2018.

Jasprit Bumrah has been a class above his compatriots across all formats since his debut ©

Compatriot Ishant Sharma has evaporated from the scene as quickly as he suddenly shot to the limelight as a rejuvenated pacer in 2018, and was never really considered a real prospect in limited-overs cricket. As for Umesh Yadav, his sheer pace was not enough to get him sustained success and his biggest strength is all but fading away as days pass. Meanwhile, the likes of Avesh Khan and Umran Malik are way too raw, inexperienced and inconsistent as of now, but more importantly, have failed to show continuous streaks of brilliance that often dictate the careers of prodigies.

Thus, India is a completely different side with and without Jasprit Bumrah, since none of the other pacers are nearly as complete as the right-arm quick. Bumrah is the only Indian bowler at the moment with prime pace and accuracy across all formats. Add to that the fact that he is India’s greatest pace exponent in Tests in a long time and as capable as a Virat Kohli or a Ravichandran Ashwin to win his team games singlehandedly. To put it in context, Bumrah is the first Asian bowler to take five-wicket hauls with the red ball in Australia, England and South Africa in the same calendar year - a feat not achieved by any Indian pacer throughout their career, nevermind across 12 months. 

No wonder then that he is amongst the few bowlers in India’s history to have a global reputation attached to them. Bumrah's natural leadership and aura actually make his fellow bowlers bowl better alongside him for reasons that can only be speculated upon. He causes the opposition teams to strategise their batting around his four overs, just like a Rashid Khan or an Adil Rashid, forcing the batters to take additional risks against the rest of the bowling unit.

India is a completely different team with and without Bumrah ©

Yet, it is often the big occasions that often separate the greats from the legends and it is hardly a surprise that Bumrah has a real pedigree for major tournaments. The pacer was India’s highest wicket-taker at the World Cup in 2019 by some distance and the fourth-highest in the tournament overall. He replicated the former feat at the World T20 2021 as well and was India’s second most successful pacer at the 2016 and 2018 Asia Cups. With Bumrah in the squad, India rarely go into a tournament as anything but firm favourites for the title or at the very least one of the top contenders. 

However, the script has completely flipped for India in recent times with Bumrah missing two major tournaments back to back. He sustained a back injury in August 2022, ruling him out of the Asia Cup in the United Arab Emirates. Consequently, India crashed out before the final, conceding defeat in two successive run chases. The glaring hole in their armoury? A death-specialist pacer. The fast bowler returned to the team after the tournament but featured in just one T20I before he was ruled out for the forthcoming 2022 World T20 as well. Unsurprisingly, India now ranks a distant third in the bookmakers’ list of the most likely candidates to triumph Down Under.

Bumrah's wicket-taking is complimented with exceptional economy rates since his debut ©

The streak of Bumrah’s injuries first started in 2018. A thumb injury in the first game of a three-month tour of the United Kingdom had ruled him out of the seven ensuing white ball games and two of the five Tests against England. In fact, Bumrah’s home Test debut was also delayed two months by a lower-back stress fracture encountered during a groundbreaking tour of the Caribbean in 2019. It took him upwards of four months to return to international cricket.

The penultimate blow of the four major injuries Bumrah has suffered since his all-format debut in 2018 came Down Under during the 2020/2021 Border-Gavaskar trophy. The pacer’s efforts as the spearhead of a fearsome pace quadrant meant the visitors had the chance to clinch another series victory in Australia with a win in the final Test at the Gabba. However, an abdominal strain forced him to sit out the encounter and even as the Men in Blue pulled off a historic triumph, Bumrah’s tryst with injuries came under the mainstream scanner for the first time in his career.

Nevertheless, the focus was majorly directed towards the ensemble cast of bowlers that had driven India to glory, a model more and more international teams have started adopting of late. In Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, Australia have three primary pace bowlers who perform as a pack. They fall on the same level of the selector’s hierarchy and have capable replacements for rotation across all formats, be it Scott Boland and Michael Neser in Tests or Kane Richardson for white-ball cricket.

New Zealand and England have adopted the same philosophy as well to ensure there is no over-reliance on a particular bowler to win them games. It does not matter whether Stuart Broad or James Anderson is leading the pack, neither is Neil Wagner any less efficient than Trent Boult. South Africa have been re-attempting the same in recent times, after the same philosophy brought them ample glory last decade albeit it was followed by a marked drop-off. The Proteas have invested in the likes of Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi who have by now developed quite a fierce reputation for themselves in the cricketing fraternity. With modern hectic schedules across all formats, it has become necessary for cricketing boards to adopt a collective approach for workload management. 

Thus, the problem with India’s approach at the moment is that they have been unable to win major tournaments even with Bumrah at his best, all due to the lack of a supporting cast. In recent history, no team has managed to succeed at ICC tournaments or dominate Tests without the presence of strong complementary bowlers. In their prime, Australia had the duo of Shane Warne and Glenn Mcgrath with the likes of Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie in support. South Africa’s hegemony in the early 2010s was defined by the pack of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander at the top of their game, with a declining Jacques Kallis still capable enough to feast on the best batsmen on his day.

India might have had many prospects in the last few years but hardly any have fulfilled their potential so far or fit into India’s all-format requirements for long-term success. The Indian Premier League was designed, amongst other reasons, to give young Indian talent a path to the national team while moulding them as per the needs of the team. The domestic circuit can only help develop players to a certain extent given their comparatively inferior of cricket, lacking prominent names in the international setup unlike the Shield in Australia or even the County Championship in England. The IPL was thus supposed to fill in the huge chasm that existed but a gap in quality continues to persist even after 15 years of the leagues' existence. The tournament has simply failed to create enough superstars required to wreak havoc on the international stage, apart from their contributions to the generational talent of Bumrah.

There is little doubt in Bumrah’s abilities as a matchwinner or the impact he has on India’s performances. His injuries may have halted his progress but they are far from significant in the grander scheme of things, at least given the developments so far. At the end of the day, India can rely on Jasprit Bumrah but they shouldn’t have to anymore.

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