“The pitch is too flat”, assessed the cricket pundits as an advantage to England, giving the hosts a fair chance to produce a record run chase at The Oval. Ravichandran Ashwin’s absence echoed those sentiments.
For Jasprit Bumrah, arguably the only three-format pacer in world cricket at present, it took only a six-over spell to break the game in India’s favour.
He also found apt support from the others. Shardul Thakur broke the opening stand with an inch-perfect delivery. Ravindra Jadeja scuffed up the ball by landing it in the rough. Mohammad Siraj and Umesh Yadav, consequently, found a hint of reverse swing in the last quarter of the morning session.
But England were still doing okay. They had their guardian angel with the bat, Joe Root still in the middle. He reverse swept Jadeja on his first ball after lunch as if he was stating that he can’t keep pitching the ball there. Jadeja responded by spinning one past Haseeb Hameed’s outside edge to hit his off stump. England were three down. Their chances of a win had faded but a draw was still a likely outcome - 43 percent according to Criclytics.
An over prior to Hameed’s dismissal, Bumrah had returned to the attack. Not a lot happened in that over, nor in his following one, except that they had the commentators talking about reverse swing again. By then, Bumrah had merely given a clue of his plans. He was going to enhance the movement with his brisk pace. England had no idea what was going to hit them.
“You have to watch out for the inswinger. He bowls it brilliantly. Nag away, nag away and then bowl with an extra half yard of pace. WAQAR YOUNIS STYLE”, said Michael Atherton a ball before Ollie Pope’s dismissal in the third over of Bumrah’s spell.
It was 143 kmph in speed, bowled a touch wide of the crease and angled in to go through Pope’s defence. The right-hander had defended the previous ball, a similar delivery with ease, putting him under an illusion that everything is fine. Next delivery, with a subtle change of the angle and cranking up his pace, Bumrah woke up the sleeping beauty that was the pitch at The Oval. You don’t get proper batsmen out like that on this pitch.
No England pacer bowled an opposition batsmen in this Test. No Indian pacer went through the defence of an England batsman in the last four days. And here he was, Jasprit Bumrah cutting a specialist batsman into two halves, on a track where he had himself played an astonishing off-drive 24 hours ago.
Jonny Bairstow was in his teens when Waqar Younis wrecked England at the same venue in 1992 and 1996. On Day 5, Bumrah gave him a first hand experience of what it must be like facing him, clattering an inswinging yorker in his stumps. It was a four-ball knock where you could almost feel bad for Bairstow. Why? The below graphic tells the story.
On the scorecard, Bumrah bagged only two wickets but it was him who broke the back of England’s effort. Watching this mastery from the non-striker’s end, Root took it upon himself to see through the rest of the Bumrah spell, which ended with figures usually seen in a tennis game: 6-3-6-2.
Ravi Shastri, the head coach, was not at the ground, having returned positive Covid tests. Bumrah’s spell, however, stood for Shastri’s symbolic presence by ‘taking the pitch out of the equation’. He bowled four yorkers after all and made the ball dance to his tunes on the impressive cluster in the good length area.
However, this is not the only example of Bumrah raising his game to the need of the hour. At Lord’s, when England were rekindling the hopes of a draw through an elongated eighth-wicket stand, he put an end to Ollie Robinson’s resistance with a genius slower one. If that delivery was a person, it won’t scare you. But from the psychological context, it was a brutal delivery as it flummoxed the batsman when he least expected it. Meanwhile, do you remember this delivery to Shaun Marsh?
It is this combination of mind and might that has rendered him the most effective Indian bowler in the series.
No wonder he has dismissed Root thrice, the most an Indian pacer has accounted for his wicket this series. The most important of these dismissals came in the Lord’s Test. Bumrah went wide of the crease again but on that occasion, instead of bringing the ball in as he did at The Oval, he got it to straighten to find the outside edge of Root’s bat.
The first innings of this Lord’s Test is the only occasion when Bumrah went wicketless in this series. But even there, he provoked England into something that compromised their sense of judgement. Yes, he lost the plot a little with three no-balls in that over but the frown on James Anderson’s face suggested England didn’t want to face him.
At The Oval in the second innings, Bumrah was the difference between the two pace attacks. England have the best proponent of swing bowling. They have the Test bowler with the third-highest release point in the world. But when the conditions are flat, only Bumrah can produce the kind of magic that he did to lift India 2-1 up in the series.