Two days earlier, Jasprit Bumrah’s yorker raced towards its target with the precision of a drone, leaving only one of Ollie Pope’s stumps in place. Forty-eight hours later, Bumrah produced a worthy encore, even if its virtues were slightly more subtle: a cutter that deceived Ben Foakes. Bumrah then nonchalantly took the opportunity himself. He had beaten Pope in pace; now he defeated Foakes for want of it.
Bumrah’s match score of 9 for 91 from 33.1 overs in Vizag was the latest example of his ability to overcome any conditions, no matter how inhospitable to fast bowling. He is the ultimate chameleon of pace bowling. A swing bowler; a seam bowler; the master of a venomous full length; the owner of a toxic bouncer. At times his method – momentarily ignoring the slingshot action – adheres to Test match orthodoxy, rolling out a classic ‘intermediate length’ that can neither be driven nor pulled; in others it mocks it. Bumrah can be many things in the same, and several in the same delivery.
He has now harvested 155 Test wickets at 20.2 apiece; only one man in Test history, Sydney Barnes, has taken more at less cost. There are indeed curious parallels between Bumrah and Barnes, the leading destroyer of Test cricket in the early 20th century. Above all, both defy easy categorization. Barnes was also a seamer and a swinger at the same time – and a spinner too. His specialty was the 110 km/h leg break. “The ball pitched outside my leg stump,” Australian opener Clem Hill recalled of a characteristic Barnes wicket in the 1911–12 Ashes. “Before I could ‘pick up’ my bat, my stump was beaten crazy.”
Both Barnes and Bumrah thrived by taking the skills they honed in the short game to Test cricket. Barnes, who was an administrator with all the regard that railway commuters had for Southern, played only 50 first-class matches in his career. He gave up his county career in 1903, at the age of 30, and signed for the Lancashire League, which paid more. The one-day cricket played there, although limited by time in the match rather than overs per side, encouraged Barnes to innovate. “I never bowled at the wickets; I bowled with the strike,” he once explained. “My intention was for the batsman to take a stroke, and then I tried to beat him.”
When you look at Bumrah now, you see an equally agile mind and a bowler who benefits from a similar crossover. While Barnes’ brief training came in Lancashire League cricket, Bumrah’s has come in the Indian Premier League. After being scouted for Mumbai Indians, at the age of 19 he was greeted in the nets by Lasith Malinga, he of slingshot action and one of the most devastating yorkers in history, with the words: ‘I will teach you things, Don’t worry, I’m there.” Perhaps the most valuable lesson Bumrah learned from Malinga, he recalled, was: “The calmer you are, the better off you are. Because that’s when your brain starts working.”
Many bowlers known for their variations, fast bot, while batsmen learn to wait for this and their stock ball becomes visible. Even if Bumrah never bowled a variation, he would still be a great bowler, such is his extraordinary control through his idiosyncratic action, coupled with movement and pace that can exceed 150 kmph.
But for all his allegiance to impeccable line and length off stump, Bumrah also recognizes how the skills that make him the world’s premier T20 pace bowler can boost his Test threat. There’s no need to reserve that javelin yoker just for the white ball game; indeed, the ball can be even more effective in Tests, when batsmen don’t set up for it like T20 batsmen in the final overs. Similarly, the off-cutter can be more lethal if batsmen have settled into Bumrah’s normal pace. While the Pope Yorker reached a speed of 130 km/h, the Foakes off-cutter was only 122 km/h, a testament to Bumrah’s astonishing range.
Just as T20 skills can improve Test batting, T20 skills can also help bowlers fight back. Ever since Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum freed batsmen to use their white ball skills against the red ball, it has been those with short format skills who have responded best.
The two men who have taken the most wickets against Bazball are probably the two best white-ball quicks of our time. Mitchell Starc took 23 wickets at 27.1 in the Ashes and excelled with his yorkers and slower balls. He mocked Australia’s initial preference for Scott Boland, whose phenomenal start to his Test career was built on impeccable line and length; Boland averaged 14.6 for the Ashes but 115.5 in his two Tests.
Bumrah is now second to Starc in the wicket count against the Stokes-McCullum regime. Pakistani leg-spinner Abrar Ahmed, who has a fine googly, and New Zealand’s Trent Boult – such a great T20 bowler that he is now a freelancer on the short format circuit – are also in the top five for most Test wickets against England in the last two years. So the top five consists of two left-armers who are leading white-ball bowlers; a wrist spinner; and that of Bumrah sui generis style. The excellent Pat Cummins is the only representative of more conventional Test bowling.
After all, one-day style bowling is just the logical answer to one-day style batting: agile and flexible, and goes beyond hitting a good line and length. And while Bumrah’s qualities are unique, England can expect opponents to strive to emulate their own unorthodoxy. Left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav, who has played 138 white-ball games for India, was recalled for his ninth Test in Vizag, taking four wickets in support of Bumrah.
David Warner, who made his T20 debut for Australia in 2009 before even playing a first-class match, showed how short-hitting qualities could translate into Test cricket. With bowlers’ short-format skills now more important than ever in Tests, selectors may be increasingly tempted to ask: can T20 bowlers also be made into five-day cricketers?