Jasprit Bumrah and the transfer of joy that engages the viewer

There is little doubt that India currently field the best fast-bowling combination in their history. They have never had a pack as effective as Bumrah-Shami-Ishant-Siraj-Yadav-Thakur. Earlier generations had only the heroic tales of Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh who rattled the English batsmen in India’s debut Test in 1932. Nearly half a century later we were still pining for them.

We lived off Nissar and Amar Singh for a long time. Nissar was faster than Bodyline’s terror Harold Larwood according to some, while Amar Singh came off the track “like the crack of doom”. When you consider that among our opening bowlers since have been the wicketkeeper Budhi Kunderan, Tiger Pataudi, Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar, you can understand the extent of the problem.

In the years I was growing up, Nissar and Amar Singh seemed both like a fantasy and a contemporary pair, invoked regularly. This was rather like harking back to a glorious past for lack of anything to boast about in the living present. Now Nissar and Amar Singh can be returned to history.

The two questions most urgently asked those years were: Why can’t India produce fast bowlers, and, when can we expect to have an opening pair to match the best? There was Gavaskar of course, the best in the world, but he lacked a partner who was consistent and gave fans the same certainty. And now here we are. A battery of opening batsmen: Rohit, Rahul, Agarwal, Shaw, Gill.

How did this come about? It is a fact not always acknowledged that bowlers decide the quality of a country’s batting too. When you have some of the best fast bowlers in the world, you will have some of the best players of fast bowling too. In the years when spinners ruled the roost, and earned India the reputation for being the Land of Spin, they produced the finest batsmen against spin.

It is an interesting coincidence that when the Spin Foursome — Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Venkatraghavan — was in its prime, the attack was spearheaded by Chandra, he of the freakish action and effective bounce. Now that the Pace Foursome is in charge, it is spearheaded by Bumrah of the freakish action and effective bounce.

Coaches had the wisdom to let the bowlers be. In his delivery stride Chandra brushed his ear as the arm came down ensuring release at the highest point of the arc. Bumrah could deliver the ball with equal comfort at various points in the arc, particularly away from his body which tended to confuse the batsmen. Both bowlers are blessed with supple wrists to control the pace.

Control is the fast bowler’s greatest ally; there is nothing so wasteful as speed without control. In the first Test in South Africa, the manner in which Bumrah took the off bail of Rassie van der Dussen who didn’t offer a stroke, and then the leg bail of Keshav Maharaj who couldn’t, was subtle, almost musical.

After the Dussen effort, a smiling Bumrah ran towards his teammates, arms spread out, eyes saying, “Did you see that?” The bowler’s joy communicates itself to the viewer; that is the essence of all performance, the transfer of joy. In his early years, Kapil Dev had this quality too, an almost child-like surprise at his own gifts.

Subtlety is a speciality of Shami’s too. The ball swings just enough, forcing the batsman to play or beating him just enough for the edge. Sometimes it ignores the bat altogether on its way into the stumps. The seam held upright means the batsmen seldom have an early clue. Both Siraj and Thakur are capable of crossing 140 kmph, but it is at their normal slower speeds that they are dangerous.

Part of the reason for the rise of fast bowling in India is the decision by the Board of Control for Cricket in India sometime after the disastrous tours of England and Australia (played eight, lost eight) to instruct groundsmen to retain a minimum grass cover on pitches, between four and five millimetres, sometimes up to eight on hard surfaces. Gradually fast bowlers began to head the domestic averages on a regular basis.

Part of the reason is the success of bowlers like Kapil Dev, Srinath and Zaheer. Partly it is due to the decline of spin bowling where competition for places isn’t what it was when the Bedi generation was at its peak. Partly it is due to the recent victories abroad orchestrated by the fast bowlers from Sreesanth to the current lot.

Indian fans now believe when their fast bowlers are operating that a wicket is likely any time, just as they feel a measure of confidence when they watch their openers going out to bat. There has been a psychological turnaround thanks to the fast men.

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