It was 2016. India had lost the first four ODIs in Australia. Skipper MS Dhoni was frustrated as his top-order batsmen were belting the skin off the white ball, but the bowlers were proving easy meat to the home batsmen. No total was enough. India made 309/3 at Perth and lost by five wickets. At Brisbane, they scored 308/8 and lost by seven wickets. At Melbourne their 295/6 ended in a three-wicket loss. In Canberra, India conceded 348/8, and the batsmen could do only so much (323).
A day before the final ODI, a rookie bowler from Ahmedabad, Jasprit Bumrah, landed in Sydney instead of going directly to Adelaide with the other T20 squad members arriving from India. The Indian board could not get him a seat on the flight with the Adelaide group. So, it was decided he would travel out of Sydney after the fifth ODI with those joining the T20 squad.
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As it turned out, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was ruled out with a left thumb fracture and Bumrah was handed the India cap and rushed into the Sydney game. Informed only in the morning, he was in the thick of action without one India net session.
To pick Steve Smith as the first wicket settled the nerves. And something changed in the bowling group. It wasn’t so much about wickets; Bumrah was exerting pressure on the Australia batsmen, who found it difficult to score off deliveries slanted into them off a unique, high-arm action. Day 1 of international duty and he was the most economical—10-0-40-2. The Australia juggernaut was finally halted as India won their first game. It was another high-scoring tie (Australia made 330/7 and India won by 6 wickets), but the advantage of 10-odd extra runs Australia were getting was transferred by Bumrah to India.
For the rest of the tour, the hosts didn’t have a clue. India’s bowlers started complementing the efforts of the batsmen as they swept the T20 series 3-0. In the final analysis, spoils were shared as both teams ended with four wins each.
Bumrah, though, was far from a finished article. In the next two years, more international experience and a rigorous fitness regime meant by the time India landed in Australia for the 2018-19 series, he was the world’s best pace bowler. Vicious and moving the ball at high speed from awkward lengths, Bumrah wreaked havoc on Australia in the four Tests, claiming a joint-best series tally of 21 wickets averaging just 17 as India won their first-ever series in Australia.
Australia’s batting this time boasts of Steve Smith and David Warner—they were serving a ban in 2018-19—and Marnus Labuschange. Their plan is to tire out Bumrah.
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How this contest shapes up is likely to decide the four-Test series. Australia won’t read much into Bumrah’s struggles in New Zealand at the start of the year. A long lay-off due to a lower-back stress fracture had curtailed his preparation before that tour. Having just helped Mumbai Indians win IPL, he looks back to his best.
The overs bowled in IPL has helped Bumrah get back to a level at which he exudes power—“I can do whatever I want”. He bagged 27 wickets in 15 IPL games. The familiar sight of stumps sent flying with yorkers and batsmen fall to bouncers suggests all is well with him. Great news for India’s pace pack.
Smith averages 84 in 10 Tests against India. In the only series he played against India in Australia in 2014-15, he averaged 128-plus in four Tests—769 runs with four hundreds—a record to intimidate any opponent.
Bumrah sets out for the Smith contest with a free mind. Like in Sydney in 2016, when he had him caught, paving the way for victory.
“Rather than trying to change things or think I’m bowling to Steve Smith or David Warner, I could just try to do the things I was doing in domestic cricket, play this like I’m playing for Gujarat. I was happy,” he said in an earlier interview about his mindset on India debut.
There’s no doubt Australia are expending lot of energy planning for Bumrah. But video analysts and team strategists can only help so much.
Every defender knew how former Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben will come at him. No amount of video analysis was enough to teach how to stop him from cutting in—charging in nudging the ball before a sudden swerve, and he was gone. Bumrah often leaves batsmen feeling that helpless.
Australia’s plan to tire him out is a defensive ploy that works with most bowlers. India did that to Mitchell Starc and Co in 2018-19, with Cheteshwar Pujara as the anchor. But Bumrah’s pace, variety and angle of delivery is a unique challenge. The stock incoming delivery is followed by a sharp bouncer or yorker; in between he slips in a pitched-up delivery that straightens or deviates late. That makes him unplayable even when a batsman is set.
Former India bowling coach, Joe Dawes, told the Sydney Morning Herald he expects Bumrah to test Smith like New Zealand left-arm Neil Wanger did, with the short ball. “Bumrah is always coming at you … a bit like Courtney Walsh, (his release is) just past the vertical, coming in at you, then he gets one to hit the seam and hold its line. It makes it really hard to play,” Dawes said. “As a right-hander, if the ball is always coming in at you, and he gets his line right, there aren’t many places to go. You duck or lean back. Especially if it’s skidding, it’s hard work.”
At the level Smith and Bumrah operate, it’s not about variety. It’s about when to use which weapon, and the counter tactic for it. It will be a battle in the head as much about skills. “There’s no particular way you get a batsman out. You study what the wicket is doing, then select the best option. What I look to do against any good batsman is have patience. A Test is a patience game. You wait for the batsmen to make mistakes. Whoever loses their patience first is the one who is going to suffer,” Bumrah had said in that interview, on how to get Smith out.
Bumrah doesn’t get carried away, underlining his hunger for success. Like Smith, game after game, his intensity never drops. In the interview, he explained: “I have never been overwhelmed. Never. Even in IPL when I played in front of big crowds before playing for the country. I hardly pay attention to what’s going on around me. For me, it’s all about enjoyment. I play because I love the game. We used to play as kids on empty grounds; nobody would see what we are doing.”
Bumrah has landed in Australia ready to build on his formidable record—68 wickets in 14 Tests at 20.33 and 104 wickets in 64 ODIs; 109 wickets in 92 T20Is—and as the X-factor.