This Article is From Sep 08, 2021

Opinion: The Ascension Of Jasprit Bumrah - by Mukul Kesavan

Root's rout was one for the ages. One of the perks of growing old is that long-ago victories and contemporary triumphs become mystically meaningful merely because you were around when both happened. When Kohli's men demolished the English team at the Oval yesterday, 50 years after Wadekar's team had first won on the same ground in 1971, remembered delight merged my dead 14-year-old self with a whooping near-retiree.

The child in question had heard India win in 1971 courtesy John Arlott and Brian Johnston and BBC's Test Match Special. Given the historic resonance of this Test at the Oval, I had gone to some lengths to make sure that victory, when/if it came, was described by competent commentators. A VPN and a borrowed subscription piped Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton, Shane Warne and Mark Butcher into my ears. In this way, double-glazed against the deference and din of Sony's studio-bound pundits, I heard knowledgeable, well-spoken partisans describe an epic match.

Epic because it featured 20 top class cricketers and two proper Heroes. Joe Root has batted like a demigod this whole series. When he walked in after Dawid Malan's run out, he began driving, deflecting, reverse-sweeping immediately, as if he had never quit the crease. There's a backfoot springiness to his play, which, combined with that ageless grinning face, makes watching him seem like watching Peter Pan on loop. The playful non-violence of his style makes you sick after a while because you want your team to win, but Root must be the most beautiful batsman at work in the world today. Which is why it was great watching this elvish creature struck down by Shardul Thakur, urf Beefy. Thakur didn't just make the ethereal Root play on, he returned him to reality. And then it was the turn of our Hero, the great Jasprit Bumrah.

Cricketers with idiosyncratic methods must play one of two roles: Freak or Original. The line between the two is thin; much depends on the clout of the player's cricket board and his own success. So Muttiah Muralitharan was an Original who might have languished as a Freak if Arjuna Ranatunga hadn't faced the Australians down, and if he hadn't been a once-in-a-century genius. Paul Adams, the South African left-arm wrist spinner, is a cautionary tale, an eccentric original who was reduced to a curiosity partly because he was a non-white pioneer in a post-apartheid team still radioactive with racism.

Bumrah has the strangest run-up of any fast bowler in Test cricket. That stooping, stalking walk in, the skip, that stuttering gallop, makes Bob Willis's legendary approach, left hand pawing the air in front of him, right hand repeatedly picking his own pocket, seem positively normal. There was never any chance of Bumrah being pigeonholed as a freak, though. One, he plays for India, the 800-pound gorilla of world cricket; two, his idiosyncrasies aren't ornamental, they make him harder to play; and three, his short career record is so impressive that respect is in order.

But it was his contretemps with Jimmy Anderson at Lord's that turned him from a formidable young fast bowler into Thor. Till Lord's, one of Bumrah's signature traits was his affability. Even the bouncing of Anderson seemed a professional working-over with no malice aforethought. It was Anderson's petulant response to his no-hard-feelings overture afterwards that seemed to introduce a vein of iron into Bumrah's soul.

The better angels of our nature urge us to turn away from media-concocted human-interest drama - like the confrontation between Bumrah and Anderson - and concentrate instead on the playing skills on display at Lord's (or elsewhere) - and they are right. We watch Test cricket to marvel at great cricketers as they produce magical routines: the inside-out cover drive, out of the rough, the deception in flight, the wonder of a hurtling ball with a still, upright seam. But they are also wrong. Cricket is a competitive sport; it involves confrontation, not just virtuosity. The face-off with Anderson was integral to the Lord's Test, not just a bad-tempered sideshow served up by bean-counting television channels.

Since that Test, Bumrah's persona has changed. The most obvious sign of this is the sense of anticipation in the commentary box every time Anderson walks out to bat and the prospect of Bumrah looms. But more than that, even when Bumrah isn't moving the ball as much as his English counterparts, or is going through a wicketless spell, there is a sense of anticipation, a heightened awareness of his potential, of what he might do.

The response to the six-over spell after lunch in which he cleaned up Ollie Pope, and then made Jonny Bairstow's stumps erupt, tells us something about Bumrah's larger-than-life affect. The unanimity of players and pundits was stunning. Joe Root, the England coach, Michael Vaughan, every cricket journalist you could name, spoke of that passage of play with an admiration that verged on the reverent. Shane Warne mock-complained that the other commentators in Sky's commentary box had stopped him from giving the man of the match award to Bumrah. "Spell of the summer", "took the pitch out of the equation", "made the ball talk", "did what great bowlers do" - every cliché for an epic feat of bowling was put to work.

From an accounting point of view, this was over the top. Regardless of how dead the pitch had previously been, Bumrah hadn't made the breach in England's bastion. The credit for that belonged to Thakur and Ravi Jadeja. Bumrah widened the breach, you could argue, when he nailed Pope and Bairstow, but even the coup de grace, the wicket of Root, belonged to the irrepressible Thakur. Yes, Bumrah could have had Root, yorked, twice, but Thakur got two (to go with his two smoking 50s), as did Jadeja, Umesh Yadav picked up three (to match the three he took in the first innings), Rohit Sharma composed an Inzamamul-esque century, and yet, all the talk and all the writing was monopolized by Bumrah's brace.

There's an amusing piece by Osman Samiuddin that goes some way to explaining the awe. Osman suggests that it was Pope's and Bairstow's foreknowledge of what Bumrah was going to do to them, their inability to forestall this fate on a featherbed that gave fast bowlers nothing, the inexorableness of it all, that made Bumrah seem like Fate come calling, like a (mostly) genial Nemesis.

The chorus of admiration Bumrah received was not the praise that greets a fine cricketing performance; this was more than that. This was cricket's elect, its freemasonry of players, ex-players, commentators, reporters, insiders and nerds, raising a player to the pantheon by acclamation:

"Hail Bumrah. We who live for cricket salute you. All hail."

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

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