Sidharth MongaAssistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
“Lash aa jandi hai golf club wali…”
Shoaib Akhtar explains many things bowling beautifully, but possibly nothing quite like his own bowling. He was born with flat feet and super flexible joints. His shoulder, elbow and wrist all hyper-extended. He once said a normal person’s joints move 20%, his moved 42%. Doctors who were testing his action in Perth apparently told him he was “pathetically abnormal”.
Translated from Punjabi, what Shoaib meant to say with the lash is that his noodle arm – and he has displayed it by placing his hand on a table with the palm facing down and the weight on the wrist twisting his arm freakishly – creates an illusion, when swung hard, not dissimilar to the whip on a golf club, when the straight golf club looks like it is bent.
Freeze the frame – from square-on – on the point where Jasprit Bumrah is about to release the ball. It is a sight to behold just for the contorted shape the body has to get into to bowl fast. Then you look at his arm. It is the same noodle arm as Shoaib. It is like the whip on the golf club. Bumrah has never spoken about it, but he is clearly born with hyper-extension in joints.
This is actually unhealthy, make no mistake about it. It is a “condition”. It leads to injuries. Injuries take time to heal. But if a bowler can harness it – Shoaib, RP Singh, Lasith Malinga, Mustafizur Rahman, Muttiah Muralitharan among spinners – oh he has a gift. This is what gives Bumrah pace despite a run-up that is little longer than Nathan Lyon’s. This is what gives him that deceptive slower ball. “The way he bowls is so much more different to anyone,” says Bumrah’s captain, Virat Kohli, “And I think he realises that more than the batsmen, and that’s why he is so confident about his skills.”
Great gifts come at great cost. Shoaib kept getting injured because of his malleable joints, the same malleable joints that gave him pace and deception. Bumrah was always an injury risk. B Arun, the current India bowling coach, worked with Bumrah at the NCA when he was not even 19. “I felt that Bumrah was able to generate a lot of pace with his action, which is unique,” Arun says, “but puts a lot of strain on his body. So, it was a challenge and we had discussions with the physios and trainers and we came to the conclusion that we needed to work on him to become extremely strong to be able to sustain his bowling.”
Kohli knows obsession and fitness when he sees it. He rarely says it about another athlete, but in Bumrah he has seen the obsession. He and the selectors saw it in ODI cricket. Bumrah had reserves even in his last spell. Kohli must have seen it in the gym. “He was training like he wanted to play Test cricket,” Kohli says. “He was that obsessed about his fitness levels, and his work ethics.”
Before coming to Australia, Bumrah knew it was going to be the most exacting tour he has been to. The pitches are hard, the outfields soft. He came to Australia leaner but with a stronger core; in the lead-up, he stuck to a strict diet. This is a bowler who knows how to preserve his gift and make the most of it.
— Jasprit bumrah (@Jaspritbumrah93) November 17, 2017
In 2018, Bumrah went to South Africa as part of the Test side without having played any first-class cricket in the year before that. There was natural skepticism attached to the move. Then India went one step ahead, and played him in the first Test, possibly because Ishant Sharma was unwell on the morning of the game.
“Dennis Lillee has recently been reminded of his mate Jeff Thomson when he watches Bumrah’s unconventional bowling”
Brought on as first change, Bumrah went for 31 runs in his first spell of seven overs. This was Kohli’s first Test as a full-time captain in a country that is considered to be challenging for India. It smacked of the same magic-wand complex that characterised his selection of Karn Sharma in Adelaide 2014-15, a selection that possibly cost India the Test. In a low-scoring game such as Cape Town, such a spell – he went for 73 in 19 overs – might just have been the difference between a win and a loss. You felt Bumrah was bowling ODI lengths: too full when full, too short when looking to hit that hard length.
And yet there Bumrah was, learning from his mistakes, correcting his lengths, faster than any India seamer in recent times has. He was their best bowler in the second innings, taking out AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock. In Centurion, he was a little better, one time threatening to run through South Africa in the third innings.
By the time he arrived in Johannesburg, Bumrah was a proper beast, a veteran in only his third Test. He has taken five-fors on his first trips to South Africa, England and Australia. While five-fors are not the purest metric – they also depend on how well others are bowling and who is fresh when a collapse is beginning – 48 wickets at an average of 21 and a strike-rate of 47 do not lie. And he has taken important wickets.
Bumrah has not just taken 42 wickets this calendar year, he has taken important ones. How do I know? He has broken FIVE half-century stands and THREE century stands in the year away from home in Tests. No other Indian bowler has over five in total. #Bumrah #AUSvsIND pic.twitter.com/2Fu2lQzqzz
— Rohit Sankar (@imRohit_SN) December 28, 2018
ESPNcricinfo’s control percentage numbers go deeper, in terms of judging the amount of uncertainty a bowler creates. It is perhaps not perfect in isolation but over a series it is a good general comparison outside the actual result, which is not always representative of how well someone has bowled or batted.
In South Africa, among bowlers who bowled in all three matches of the series, batsmen were in least control against Bumrah. He drew uncertainly on 27.49% of the balls he bowled, pipping Kagiso Rabada’s 27.48%. Lungi Ngidi and Dale Steyn had a better percentage, but they didn’t play the entire series. In the three Tests he played in England – he missed two, not because of lack of fitness but a broken thumb – Bumrah drew 27% non-in-control response from the batsmen, behind only Mohammed Shami’s 28.53%. In Australia, Bumrah is the leader again, drawing 25% uncertainty.
Nowadays Bumrah just rocks up and knows what lengths he needs to bowl on which pitch. If India have batted first – which has happened four times in Bumrah’s nine Tests – he starts on the money. If India are bowling first, on a surface whose nature is not known, he always corrects his lengths in his second spell. There is a clear pattern of improvement over subsequent spells for Bumrah; no other India bowler since Bumrah’s debut has any such pattern over spells. And Bumrah bowls long spells.
Bumrah’s problem with no-balls is well documented. There was the one in the Champions Trophy final in 2017. Then in the Test series last year, Bumrah bowled five no-balls in England; two of them were wickets. And yet, on the Australia tour he has not come close to bowling one in 134 overs. It’s gone. Done.
Bumrah is a freak who does regular things just as well. Dennis Lillee has recently been reminded of his mate Jeff Thomson when he watches Bumrah’s unconventional bowling, but just think of a slightly slower but much more accurate Thomson when you think Bumrah.
“He is never angry. He never sledges. He never goes over the top. Send-off? What for? His relaxed celebrations are like he is saying “Yeah, there is no big deal getting you out.” “No wicket is big enough for me.”
I asked him at a press conference in Adelaide how he figures out what areas to bowl on what pitch and in what condition so quickly, how he keeps correcting himself so swiftly; it is something some veterans of Test cricket still struggle at. “There is no secret,” Bumrah said. “I try to ask questions to players who have played here before, or wherever they have played. In England, when I was not playing, I was bowling in the nets, I was keeping an eye on what was happening. So try to copy that in the nets. In South Africa, I was consistently playing one-day cricket. I was bowling, there was a lot of overs under my belt. I always try to learn, I always try to ask questions. I try and keep an eye on the opposition as well, what is working for them, maybe try and learn from them. All these things always help you. Do your research, do your homework, keep an eye on the lengths of the different grounds and different players, what they do.
I asked if he talks to anyone about this. “I didn’t talk to anyone in particular but watching old footages, what works over here, how they have taken wickets. Watching good spells of old bowlers, what they have done over here, how to get wickets. Asking the bowling coach questions, asking the senior players who have come here before who know what to do over here.”
In the mornings, during the warm-ups, you can see Bumrah talk to Mitchell Johnson, his former Mumbai Indians team-mate, and also the likes of Glenn McGrath. Those in the know call Bumrah an “autonomous” cricketer. You don’t have to look after him, you don’t have to spoon-feed him. He thinks, he asks his questions himself, he finds out what is good for him instead of being told the same.
That autonomy is almost as unique for today’s cricketers as Bumrah’s action and even his celebrations. He is never angry. He never sledges. He never goes over the top. Send-off? What for? He is not even dismissive of you as Mohammad Asif used to be. Asif was once disappointed de Villiers got out even before he could finish the set-up.
When Bumrah set Keaton Jennings up in Southampton, revealing his inswinger to the left-hand batsmen with just a changed seam position, he made Jennings look like an utter fool, but he didn’t go around running. The set-up of Shaun Marsh with a lethal slower ball last before lunch in Melbourne did the batsman just as much discredit. Bumrah never showed it. And yet there is a slight bit of that Asif disdain in Bumrah’s relaxed celebrations. “Like, yeah, there is no big deal getting you out.” “No wicket is big enough for me.”
All this comes from confidence that comes with knowledge you have all the tools, all the freakishness, all the wisdom – or the willingness to attain wisdom – all the fitness, and all the autonomy. Some day he will tell you – probably not as evocatively as Shoaib – where he gets all this from.