Boom. Boom. Boom.
The chants in the stands at Southampton from a sizeable Indian crowd began mutedly, but built up a steady head of steam and exploded in raucous crescendos. They pretty much mirrored the bowling action of Jasprit Bumrah — the man being celebrated — to perfection.
When Bumrah is at the top of his mark he appears to be ready to do anything but bowl fast. His first few steps are baby shuffles, his build up more of a person running to catch a train than an athlete aiming for peak speed but when reaches the bowling crease there is an explosive release of energy.
Strong shoulders, long levers, feet planted wide for optimum load management and the ball flies out of his hand. But where Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s deliveries kiss the pitch before gliding towards the batsman and Mohammad Shami’s skid off the surface, a ball delivered by Bumrah bangs into the turf and spits off it, almost defying the laws of physics and gaining speed.
Bumrah, who is largely a self-taught cricketer — no coach would recommend such a bowling action and it is a credit to the many that they tolerated this in an individual — but his cricketing intelligence and ability to work batsmen out is innate. This is something no coach can teach, beyond a point and yet this is what separates the great from the merely good at the highest level.
In a country where batsmen are deified, bowlers are strictly working class. And, till very recently the concept of an Indian fast bowler did not really exist, leaving fans and followers at a bit of a loss in terms of appreciating such a cricketer. Sure, there were enough swing bowlers who excelled, some that had the skill to move the ball off the pitch, but none that sustained hostility and pace over long spells to forge a career of any length.
And this is perhaps why Virat Kohli naturally draws not only the millions of fans on Twitter, the hundreds of crores of endorsement money and the power of running the game while Bumrah is still finding his feet in terms of making a name for himself.
At the moment, though, it can be said with some certainty that there is no more valuable cricketer in India, across formats of the game, than Bumrah. If for some reason Kohli was unavailable, there are batsmen who can step up and get the job done. Certainly none of Kohli’s staggering ability, hunger or drive, but the runs, you would expect, would still be on the board. But, if you took Bumrah out of the bowling equation, the picture would change dramatically.
Firstly, India’s ability to intimidate batsmen through sheer physicality would be greatly impacted. Bumrah might smile before a training session and laugh when he picks up a wicket, but it is his ability with the ball that allows Kohli to snarl at opposition batting line-ups. The good thing for Indian cricket, though, is that Kohli realises exactly how valuable his No. 1 bowler is.
“The way he’s bowling right now, it’s so, so good to see because when you see batsmen literally clueless against him and he’s rushing people,” said Kohli after India’s win in their opening match of the World Cup. Bumrah bowled a menacing first spell on a pitch that was far from spiteful and the wicket of Hashim Amla was a thing of beauty. “To be honest, I haven’t seen Hashim get out like that in one-day cricket. He might play shots and get out, but to get guys out like that, rushing them a bit, I think it’s a great thing and it’s a testimony to his hard work. Bumrah is very disciplined. He is working really hard at practice, in the gym, with his diet, with his rest. He understands this is his time and he’s making the most of it so hats off.”
And this is another stand-out feature of Bumrah. He understands himself, as a cricketer and as a person well enough to not try and tailor his personality to other people’s expectations. While getting pumped up and drawn into confrontations may work for Kohli, Bumrah gets the best out of himself by just being himself. While still young in the game, Bumrah innately understands what he needs to do to succeed.
Kohli, the best batsman in the world, has faced Bumrah, the best bowler in the world, more than enough to understand how best to approach playing him. “Well, one thing you know with facing Jasprit is you have to play good cricketing shots against him and you have to back your technique. Because if you are hesitant a little bit, he senses that and he’s all over you,” said Kohli. “If he senses someone’s not enjoying the short ball in the net, he will make sure that guy gets it in that session. So what you see him bowling in the match he bowls exactly like that to us in the nets. He doesn’t care who is standing in front of him. He will bounce people, he will try to get people bowled, he will york people with the new ball and that’s the reason for his consistency. He doesn’t change his game because he’s in the nets compared to the game. For a batsman, it’s beautiful to face a guy like that.”
If facing Bumrah has made Kohli a better batsman, the young fast bowler is on his own steep learning curve. “You can learn from any bowler in the world,” said Bumrah. “Whether that’s a first-class game or an international. I always keep an eye on what is happening all over, so that maybe I can learn and add things to my armoury. There’s no harm in learning.”
Bumrah may be keeping an eye on all around him, absorbing all he can, but at the moment the world’s eyes are on him as he shapes to make this World Cup his own.
This article was first published on the ThePrint.in website