Jasprit Bumrah lost but a chance gained
With barely a week left before the first match, Jasprit Bumrah’s withdrawal from the Test series against South Africa because of a stress fracture in the lower back is an unexpected and unhappy development that will have Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri fretting.
This is a home series and the South African team—undergoing a makeover and flush with inexperienced hands—is not the strongest to have come to these shores. India will start as firm favourites.
But threats and challenges lurk. The complexion of Test cricket has been revised ever since the World Championship started in August. India are No 1 in the format, but what now has greater value is points gained from every match, culminating in the play-off for World Champion two years down the road.
This makes wins terribly important, which in turn puts greater emphasis on match-winning players who can deliver consistently. Composition of the playing side, therefore, becomes crucial, but has to be juxtaposed with workload of key players, especially if they are fast bowlers. It is moot whether England missed James Anderson in the recent Ashes series after he broke down in the first Test itself. Anderson’s brilliant home record would suggest his team suffered even though Broad and newbie Jofra Archer were superb.
On the other hand, imagine Australia’s plight had Josh Hazlewood not recovered in time for the series, or Pat Cummins had had a breakdown!
Managing the workload of such invaluable resources in the time frame of the World Championship is now a major part of the onus on captains and coaches.
In that sense, the injury to Bumrah will ring alarm bells in Kohli and Shastri. He is central to India’s aspirations for the Test World Championship ending 2021, as well as the T20 World Championship in Australia late next year.
The team management would want him in prime fitness in all key contests. Bumrah has easily been India’s outstanding bowler since making his Test debut in South Africa early last year and a key factor why India are No 1 in the five-day format.
Perceived as a white ball specialist, his selection then had raised eyebrows. At best, he was seen as understudy to Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar. As it happened, the captain and coach punted on the wiry, unorthodox bowler and to everyone’s surprise Bumrah clicked from the word go.
In 12 Tests since, Bumrah’s bagged 62 wickets, mostly frontline batsmen. These wickets have also come at such a hugely impressive strike rate (43.7) and average (19.2) that Bumrah has swiftly reached the highest echelons among fast bowlers in the contemporary game, and is widely regarded as the most penetrative too.
One of the challenges confronting Bumrah this season (and of great interest to fellow players, coaches and aficionados everywhere surely) was how he would fare on Indian pitches that play true or are more likely to assist spin.
Would Bumrah have enjoyed the same success as he did overseas where he has got all his Test wickets?
That must remain in suspense till his comeback, hopefully in the series against Bangladesh that comes up next. In the mean time, against South Africa, India have to win without their spearhead, to enhance their lead at the top of the table in the World Test Championship.
Spin is traditionally India’s Plan A playing at home and this was unlikely to change even if Bumrah was to play.
India are also currently blessed with a plethora of high quality fast bowlers. Umesh Yadav, who replaced Bumrah in the squad, has quality and depth of experience so India are not short of hands.
Yet the psychological impact that Bumrah would have had on South African batsmen will be missed. His pace, control, swing and seam movement and most importantly, the element of surprise unsettle the best. In that sense, the South African batsmen will breathe relatively easy.
Apart from coping with Bumrah’s absence, the difficulty quotient for India is increased by some lingering issues in the batting (an unsettled opening pair, a less than fulfilling lower order and tail).
This and the burden of expectation will put Kohli & Co to test. But therein also is opportunity to reveal ambition—individually and collectively—and showcase the depth of talent in Indian cricket.
(The writer is a cricket expert. Views are personal)