It was Mohammed Siraj’s international debut and he had been plundered for 10 and 16 in his first two overs. Siraj was at the receiving end of a merciless Colin Munro on a flat deck in Rajkot. When he finished his second over, Jasprit Bumrah walked up to him and put his arm round his shoulders to console him.
Bumrah tried to comfort Siraj, telling him every bowler gets hit and that they learn by getting hit. Bumrah is not the senior-most bowler in the Indian team; it’s Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Bumrah still took the initiative to calm Siraj’s nerves when he could have stayed back at his fielding position between overs. Bumrah himself is less than two years old in international cricket but he chose to take the responsibility upon himself, just the way he has as a bowler in the absence of more experienced quicks such as Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami.
On that day, it was primarily because of Bumrah that New Zealand did not race away to score over 200. He pulled the length back on the batting-friendly pitch when good-length balls and slower ones were being launched into the stands. In his second spell, he returned to stem the flow of boundaries in the death overs when Munro was “going berserk”, in Bumrah’s words, by giving away only 14 in his last two overs.
Bumrah has risen through the ranks at incredible pace and given the team management immense flexibility, allowing them to rely on him and Bhuvneshwar as their lead new-ball pair in both T20Is and ODIs while resting Shami and Umesh for the Test cricket. When he made his international debut in early 2016 in Australia, it was mainly his outlandish action and angle that deceived batsmen. Since then, players from around the world have had time to adjust to him – by now they have had 57 international matches to watch him in and try to pick up his weaknesses.
But Bumrah has been one step ahead. To add to the yorker he learnt from Mumbai Indians team-mate Lasith Malinga, he now possesses variations that include deceptive slower deliveries, in particular the offcutter. Within two years, he has emerged as the specialist death bowler India had desperately been seeking for many years.
“The kind of action he has, batsmen find it difficult to pick him, but he has also improved on a few things,” Bhuvneshwar explained on the eve of the third T20I. “He has had a yorker, he has improved his slower deliveries too. When you bowl with such a bowler, you are confident that if you do well, he will also do well from the other end. If you aren’t having a good day, at least he will bowl well. We feed off that confidence. The best part is before every match we talk to each other about the wicket and what strategy we can employ. That helps a lot.”
Bumrah’s package of skills was on display in Kanpur too, during the decisive third ODI when New Zealand were on track to chase down 338. Another flat track and Bhuneshwar was being taken to the cleaners. But Bumrah stepped up. He sent down some of his slower offcutters – removing Ross Taylor with one of them – and then defended 15 off the last over when dew made the ball difficult to control. Such was Virat Kohli’s faith in him that Bumrah bowled four of the last 10 overs and he is relied upon to bowl his last two at the death in T20Is too. It reflects in how he has delivered more than one-third (34.37%) of the death overs bowled by Indian bowlers since his debut last year.
Being stingy as a bowler is one undebatable advantage but Bumrah has combined that with wickets. Only 10 months ago, England were chasing 146 in the Nagpur T20I and needed 41 from the last five overs, with Ben Stokes and Joe Root at the crease and seven wickets in hand. There was no Bhuvneshwar that day, but Bumrah had the wily old Ashish Nehra for company. Once Nehra dismissed Stokes, Bumrah bowled a combination of hit-the-deck back-of-a-length deliveries and slower balls that turned into four dot balls to Root and Jos Buttler in the 18th over.
Nehra conceded 16 in the next over and England were left needing only eight from the last six balls. Bumrah removed Root with the first ball, bowled more of those slower offcutters, and then cramped Buttler for room with the angle to rattle the stumps. Seven needed from two balls and Bumrah didn’t let the batsmen put bat on either of them. After the match, Kohli revealed he had told Bumrah to “bowl what comes naturally to you”, and the 22-year-old won India the match.
With such wicket-taking ability under pressure, Bumrah has made sure no bowler has struck more often than him in the death overs since his T20I debut. And this while maintaining an economy rate of 7.23 in that phase. Even though Bumrah has admitted it is tough to bowl at the end of the innings, he has picked up 23 of his 38 T20I wickets (60.5%) from overs 16 to 20.
While batsmen often use the pace offered by fast bowlers to collect boundaries in the slog overs, Bumrah’s variations have ensured he does not concede many boundaries despite building dot-ball pressure. When the opponents need big shots after dot balls, all they manage more often than not are singles or doubles off him. Among bowlers who have bowled more than 30 death overs in T20Is, the only ones with a better economy rate than Bumrah are spinners Sunil Narine and Saeed Ajmal. In that same period, he only concedes a boundary every 8.16 balls, again the best rate among fast bowlers who have bowled more than 30 death overs.
Overall too, only one bowler has taken more T20I wickets than Bumrah since his debut – Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan.
When New Zealand prepared for this India tour, the focus of their batsmen would probably have been on tackling spinners on slow surfaces. But their biggest challenge so far has been Bumrah, the joint-highest wicket-taker and the most economical fast bowler in the ODI series. Whether curators produce a sluggish pitch for the spinners or a flat track promising a high-scoring encounter, Bumrah defies the conditions with his range and cunning lengths.
“That’s a tough one,” New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner said about planning for Bumrah. “You can prepare what you can in the nets for his bowling but in the middle if you miss, it can be quite difficult. As a batsman, you want to try and make him miss his length either by going back in the box or running at him, but on a day if he’s hitting yorkers it’s pretty tough.”
If the match on Tuesday goes down to the last few overs with the series on the line and New Zealand chasing, they will have to contend with a bowler in top form, running in brimming with self-confidence.