At the end of the first Test between West Indies and India at Antigua, Jasprit Bumrah stormed into the top 10 bowlers on the ICC Test rankings in just his eleventh Test. The fastest Indian pacer to 50 Test wickets (in terms of deliveries) climbed into the top 10 on the back of his fourth Test five-for.
In the process, he became the only Asian bowler to take a five-for in South Africa, England, Australia and the West Indies. What’s even more impressive is the fact that India have won all the four Tests in which he has taken a five-for. The fact that he did this on his first tour of each country speaks volumes of his ability.
Since his Test debut, Bumrah has risen in rankings after every single game. A constant push for self-improvement has fast-tracked him to number seven in the world.
As a kid growing up in the 1990s in India, I took a liking to the catchy chewing-gum ad starring a superhero of the same name as the gum – Boomer. The superhero referred to as Boom-Boom-Boomer, had a body that was infinitely stretchable and helped kids escape various calamities like a jungle fire, an electric monster and even by controlling a spaceship that lost its orbit.
For Indian cricket fans, the 1990s, however, provided no recollection of an Indian fast bowler dominating the opposition batsmen. In a team that was dependent on some of the best batsmen of their generation and quality spinners, a tearaway fast bowler was not imaginable even in our dreams.
The 2000s changed the scenario a bit when pace bowlers started becoming the heart of the team. Despite initial promise, no-one apart from Zaheer Khan fulfilled their potential in careers marred by injuries and inconsistent form.
Even though the Indian team started featuring good fast bowlers, their pace and fitness was still below par at the international level. After the gradual decline of pacers like Zaheer, the situation was such that India was struggling to bowl oppositions out in foreign conditions that led to 4-0 series whitewashes in England and Australia in 2011-12.
While Ishant Sharma moved up the hierarchy to occupy the position of the pace spearhead, he has only recently found his mojo (after 81 Tests in 10 years) thanks to Jason Gillespie’s advice on the right lengths to bowl while coaching the lanky pacer during his stint at Sussex.
Other finds during this era were the reliable Bhuvneshwar Kumar - whose level of potency with the red ball differs based on the movement on offer by the conditions - and Mohammed Shami - a bowler with an equal probability of blowing hot or cold.
Although the three-way pace attack appeared handy on paper, the results were not quite there. During the round of overseas tours in 2014-’15, India lost 3-1 in England and 2-0 in Australia. There were some moments of glory like the Lord’s Test in 2014 but overall, the spice and consistency needed to make use of the conditions on offer were still missing and the inability to take 20 opposition wickets still persisted after four years.
While the national team was busy with home domination and away capitulation, a rookie from Gujarat, Jasprit Bumrah was representing his state in the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, India’s domestic Twenty20 competition in March 2013. He ended up being the Player of the Match for his tournament-winning spell of 3-1-14-3.
Luck is always a factor in all great careers. Since Bumrah was destined for bigger things, it so happened that the coach of Mumbai Indians back then, John Wright, witnessed Bumrah live at the venue while scouting for his franchise. Impressed by what he had seen, Wright convinced the management to pick Bumrah for the Mumbai-based franchise in the 2013 season.
In the Mumbai Indians dressing room, Bumrah found himself among greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Lasith Malinga who was famed for his toe-crushing yorkers, a trait that earned Bumrah his reputation in the years to come.
On his Indian Premier League (IPL) debut, Bumrah trapped his current international captain Virat Kohli plumb leg-before and ended with a three-for. For the rest of his debut season, he was only remembered for the stop-start run-up and an awkward action.
A knee injury forced him to be on the sidelines for four-and-a-half months in 2014. The next duet of career-changing moments came in the 2015-16 season. The first was when, in the Ranji Trophy, he took 21 wickets for Gujarat and ended up being their second-highest wicket-taker. The second was when he took a Michelle in the final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy to clinch the first title for his state and, thus, earned himself a call-up to the national team that was to tour Australia for limited-over matches in January 2016.
Representing India on his first tour, Bumrah took six wickets in three T20Is in Australia. A team that was struggling with death bowling options for many years was overjoyed by the accuracy of Bumrah’s yorkers. The then Indian captain MS Dhoni went on to call Bumrah ‘the find of the series’.
Since his debut, the desire for self-improvement with each passing game has contributed to Bumrah’s reputation. A constant in the white-ball format, he impressed in the World T20 in 2016 and later in the IPL that season.
Ponting, Mumbai Indians’ coach during that season deemed Bumrah ready for Test cricket. “If you look at the skills Bumrah has and the way he has come through over the last two years, then he is ready to play Test cricket. He’s got everything. He’s got an unusual action, got a good pace and with the brand new ball can get some good movement in the air,” suggested Ponting. But for Bumrah, Test cricket had to wait.
In early 2017, Bumrah, while defending eight runs off the final over of a T20I against England gave away only two runs and took two wickets. The fact that England were only four down when Bumrah began the last over and India were 0-1 down in a three-match series added to the reputation of 23-year-old Bumrah’s quality and calmness.
In the IPL final later that year, Bumrah bowled the 17th over when Rising Pune Supergiant needed 33 off 24 balls with eight wickets in hand and Steve Smith and Dhoni at the crease. He conceded three runs and took the wicket of Dhoni in the 17th over that shifted the momentum in his team’s favour eventually before clinching the match by one run.
By now, Bumrah was the go-to man for his captain in the white-ball format. Boom-Boom-Boomer was replaced by Boom-Boom-Bumrah and rightly so as Bumrah’s arms too appeared stretchable to provide him with the pace and control from a short run-up and an awkward angle.
As the away leg of India’s Test fixtures began in early 2018, Bumrah was selected in the squad that was to tour South Africa under a hungry captain in Kohli. The adaptability, ability to learn quickly and a keen mind to read the game was on display as Bumrah improved his numbers drastically in the space of two innings on his debut Test. By his third Test, he earned himself his maiden Test five-for.
Bumrah suffered a shoulder injury during the 2018 IPL that ruled him out of the first two Tests of the five-match series in England in July-September. Bumrah came back in the third Test and got a five-for straight away. Having lost the first two Tests, India could not recover and lost the series 4-1. One can only wonder if the availability of Bumrah in the first two games might have turned the momentum in India’s favour.
Touring Australia later that year, a fit Bumrah was now the spearhead even with the red ball. He contributed in every match and earned himself a third five-for in the third Test at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground. India went on to win the Test and the series 2-1. This was India’s first Test series victory on Australian soil.
It’s something to cherish for a team and fans who never even in their wildest of imaginations thought that someday one of their own will be hailed by West Indian greats like Sir Andy Roberts as, ‘the only variety of bowler we had never produced’, and Sir Curtly Ambrose as ‘he could have been one of us, he’s so complete a bowler that he could have played in any era’.
What Bumrah has achieved is not an overnight success. Just like Iron Man keeps updating his suit to save the earth from increasingly catastrophic villains, Bumrah keeps adding new tricks to his armoury to deceive batsmen. After the yorkers, Bumrah displayed control with slower balls, exhibited quality reverse swing and has now upgraded himself with out-swinging deliveries that recently bamboozled as many as four West Indian batsmen who saw their stumps cartwheeling towards the slips cordon. The fact that these outswingers are delivered with an action that provides a natural feeling of a ball that is coming into the batsman, makes him even more lethal.
Such has been the growth in the impact of the Bumrah factor on the opposition that in the recently concluded World Cup and the IPL, opposition batsmen limited themselves to seeing him out and refrained from giving him wickets. As a result, he enjoyed the best economy among all front-line pace bowlers in both tournaments. The fact that he did not concede even a single boundary during the match-winning spell in the 2019 IPL final just adds to Bumrah’s greatness.
What makes Bumrah climb above his contemporaries is his ability to perform in all forms of the game. Since his debut, he has been among the leading bowlers in all three formats. His ability to use his tricks wisely across formats has often enabled him to out-think batsmen.
A recent example being a slower-ball yorker, a trick developed during the IPL and delivered as the last ball before lunch to Shaun Marsh in the first innings of the MCG Test found the southpaw plumb in front. Delivering a variation when the batsman least expects it and to do it with uncanny control puts Bumrah in the league of the great Shane Warne. The only difference being that he is in the news for all the right reasons.
Bumrah’s Workload Management
While Bumrah has already been perceived as a future superstar and even the best pace bowler India has ever produced, the team management deserves a shoutout for managing his workload appropriately.
Since his debut, he has increasingly been involved in crucial matches only. An action that is bound to put a lot of pressure on the right shoulder, workload management will be key to ensure the longevity of Bumrah’s career.
Given India’s heartbreak in the recently concluded 50-over World Cup, it will not be surprising if Bumrah mostly represents the team in Tests over the next couple of years, owing to the World Test Championship. He might play only a handful of white-ball games to keep himself in rhythm for the World T20 next year.
The batting great, Sir Vivian Richards went as far as saying that he would rather face Dennis Lillee than Jasprit Bumrah. The motivation and diligence demonstrated by Bumrah has earned him such star-studded accolades in his young career. Barring a serious injury, he is well on his way to be one of the best bowlers the world has ever seen, let alone India has ever produced.