T20 World Cup: India's hopes rest not on its superstar batters but on Bumrah

Superstardom is mostly reserved for batters but Bumrah is now in that league

PTI06_10_2024_000082B Jasprit Bumrah | PTI

The India-Pakistan match in New York’s Nassau County stadium lived up to its billing. There was not a seat to spare, for love or money, and an estimated two billion global viewers reiterated that the rivalry between the neighbours has no parallel in any team sport.

Superstardom in Indian cricket has traditionally been reserved for batters. Kapil Dev was an exception. Bumrah is now in that hallowed cluster.

The drop-in pitch, imported from Adelaide, Australia, became a vital factor in how things transpired on the field. The bounce was uneven and there was sufficient seam movement for fast bowlers, compelling batsmen to be watchful.

In terms of technique, temperament and tactics―for batters and bowlers―it was an unusual T20 match. But it turned out to be a classic giving lie to the belief that only high-scoring T20 matches are riveting.

An India-Pakistan contest is never just a battle of skill, rather more of nerve and will power of the players from both teams, individually and collectively. Astutely handled by captain Rohit Sharma, with Jasprit Bumrah as the lynchpin of the attack, India’s bowlers had pulled off a stunning win.

Historically renowned for spin bowling, how India went from deficit to abundance in fast bowling talent in the past couple of decades makes for a remarkable story. The BCCI’s policy of preparing ‘sporting’ pitches for domestic tournaments, though introduced belatedly, has been extremely fruitful and supplemented further by the IPL which offers an attractive livelihood and instant stardom. Sensing growing demand and opportunity for fast bowlers, aspiring cricketers in the remotest parts of the country today are eager to train, toil and chase speed rather than spin as their stock in trade.

The rise and rise of Jasprit Bumrah

Bumrah is the most dazzling exemplar of the pace revolution that has brought about a paradigm shift in Indian cricket. Born and raised in Ahmedabad, a city hardly known for fast bowling, he was spotted by talent scouts of Mumbai Indians in his late teens and fast-tracked into the IPL in 2013. He was an instant success, but considered a T20 specialist, what with his unorthodox bowling style which purists thought obstructive to finesse in other formats, especially Test cricket, and most experts believed was physically unsustainable over a length of time. Both concerns were proved unfounded.

His white-ball debut for India came in 2016. He made a mark with his control and consistency, impressing then captain Virat Kohli and chief coach Ravi Shastri and prompting them to take him for the Test series in South Africa in 2017-2018. Sceptics decried his selection even as Kohli and Shastri averred that Bumrah had the X-factor which would help India win overseas.

India narrowly failed to win the Test series then in South Africa, but Bumrah was a rousing success, and along with Mohammed Shami, would form a fast-bowling pair that would win India several matches in every format.

Bumrah has had his travails with injuries, the most serious coming in 2022. It forced him to miss the T20 World Cup and he spent a further year in surgery and rehab. Sceptics rose again with the we-told-you-so arguments. But, Bumrah’s dedication and determination to play at the highest level saw him grit his way past these hurdles. Since his return to the Indian team, he has been sensational.

In the ODI World Cup last year, when India won 10 matches to reach the final, he was the most potent in the attack though Shami got more wickets. In the 3-1 Test series win against England, he was in masterly form and swung the series India’s way with a match-winning spell in the second Test. In the IPL (though Mumbai Indians finished last), he was the most dreaded bowler. In the ongoing T20 World Cup he is in immaculate form and was man of the match in India’s first two outings, against Ireland and Pakistan.

Superb skills, versatility and rich variety in repertoire, impeccable control, deep ambition and an ability to read a batter all contribute to a strong killer instinct, making Bumrah the world’s best fast bowler.

Superstardom in Indian cricket has traditionally been reserved for batters. Kapil Dev was an exception. Bumrah is now in that hallowed cluster, marking a dramatic shift in ethos and understanding among fans and experts alike. In the last few months, his ability to win matches, often from difficult situations, has made him India’s most pivotal player. For India’s progress in the tournament, most hope now is not vested in batting supremos Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma, but in Bumrah.

Can India win this World Cup?

So India have beaten Pakistan, and a major hurdle has been crossed.

India’s record against Pakistan in ICC tournaments is fantastic, but has been celebrated like winning the title―among fans more noticeably, but also among players. That is a big pitfall to guard against.

A cursory glance at previous ICC tournaments across formats reveals India have failed repeatedly on the big occasions.

At T20 World Cups, since winning in 2007, India have lost in the final in 2014, in the semifinals in 2016 and 2022, and failed to make the knock-outs in the other four tournaments. At ODI World Cups, India’s triumph in 2011 punctuated failure to make the knock out stage in 2007, losing in semifinals in 2015 and 2019 and in the final in 2023. India, as defending champions, also lost the Champions Trophy final in 2017, to Pakistan, and in the final of the World Test Championship twice, in 2021 and 2023.

This pattern throws up two important aspects of Indian cricket. The talent is enormous, which is why the team has been so consistent in reaching knockout stages of big tournaments. However, the inability to last the distance and win the title has been both distressing and baffling.

With all the resources at their disposal―money, talent, and expertise in sports medicine, nutritionists and psychologists, readily available―it is unsatisfying that India have still been unable to win an ICC title since the 2013 Champions Trophy.

Moreover, with the supply of high-class talent not being an issue, and team selection shorn of parochialism/favouritism and other ills of yore, this lack of success becomes astonishing. Different captains (M.S. Dhoni, Kohli, Rohit) and coaches (Shastri, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid) in different combinations have not been able to arrest the sequence of failure. What could be the pitfall?

By a process of elimination, inability to handle big-match pressure emerges as the only logical factor.

“How you prepare to tackle pressure situations depends on advance planning, as well as dynamically in match situations,” says Ravi Shastri, former captain and chief coach of India.

When Rahul Dravid took over as chief coach and teamed up with captain Rohit, the duo said their biggest challenge was to decode the mental block of losing in knock-out matches. In the three ICC tournaments (across formats) that they have been together, India’s performances have been extremely good, but a title has proved elusive.

There is no fixed template for winning tournaments, of course. The process of sport is dynamic. High-quality talent, deep ambition, intense planning, astute leadership, and some luck, all play a part. India have a fantastic squad in this World Cup. In beating Pakistan, India have taken a major step. But even more crucial ones are needed to rewrite a script of prolonged agony into one of glory.