Jasprit Bumrah, the master of his game
As Jasprit Bumrah - India’s most lethal pacer makes a comeback after an injury layoff, he speaks of his technique, why and how he is always learning and the yorker.
Let’s begin with Shaun Marsh, December 28, 2018, facing up to Jasprit Bumrah on a slow Melbourne wicket. Day Three, Boxing Day Test, lunch approaching, the ball’s gone soft. Dreary conditions for a fast bowler.
Bumrah is doing what he can, using speed off the air, clocking in above 140kph most balls, keeping his line tight.
Final ball of the over before lunch. Rohit Sharma walks up to Bumrah from mid-off, says, “why don’t you try a slower ball, like the one you use in one-dayers?”
Bumrah instantly recognises it as a great idea. “Some of those guys play with hard hands, so maybe…maybe the ball will dip, maybe he will lob it to short cover…” he thinks.
Bumrah has not bowled a slower ball through the match but now he does, he shaves off a quarter of the pace. The ball swings in at 113kph, dips at the top of its full length and under the bat from the lack of speed, bangs into Marsh’s ankle in line with the middle stump.
Marsh has no idea what just happened.
Quiver full of options
Bumrah, lounging on a sofa in a red full-sleeved T-shirt, blue jeans and a pair of retro, oversized white sneakers, relives the moment and smiles to himself. He’s just come off a practice session at the Mumbai Cricket Association grounds and is days away from making his way back into Team India after spending four months recovering from a back injury.
“I always like to have new things up my sleeve,” he says. “If you’ve got only two or three tricks, then you’re stuck. Some days you go in with a fixed agenda; you think, at the end, I’m just going to bowl yorkers and slower balls. But on that day, if your yorkers are out of place—and your opponents know you will bowl slower balls and are waiting for it—then you need a good bouncer, right? If you’ve got a very good length ball. Or a wide yorker, a wide slower ball…oh! I’ve got so many options!”
Bumrah, the master of the variety show, is a scorching fast bowler with a bag of tricks that’s spilling over. Full up missiles, back-of-the-length nags, slower balls, swinging in, swinging out, off-cutters and leg-cutters, seam up and cross seam, yorkers—always those yorkers—all served up with unnerving accuracy.
His captain Virat Kohli calls him the “most complete bowler in the world”, and it’s hardly an exaggeration.
On that day in Melbourne, Bumrah delivered 15.5 overs, four of those maidens, conceded 33 runs and took six wickets. He got the opener Marcus Harris with a bouncer, setting the batsman up with a perfectly placed field after having hit him twice on the helmet. He got Travis Head after lunch, with a 142kph ball from wide around the crease that swung in late, beat him for pace, and sprayed the stumps up in the air. Tim Paine was caught behind off a classic off-cutter. Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood got yorkers.
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Yet, if Bumrah had to pick his most memorable bowling performance, it would not be Melbourne, even though his bowling set up India’s historic first-ever Test series win in Australia. It would be the previous Test in Perth, on a far livelier wicket, where he made the batsmen dance.
“I bowled better than the game in Melbourne, but I was very unlucky,” Bumrah says. “Well, I got five wickets in the game, three and two…but I should have gotten more, the batsman kept on getting beaten.”
Indeed it was a masterclass of control and virtuoso range. Balls flew past edges, angled in or out, moving in or away, nipping across, straightening on unsuspecting batsmen, hitting them on helmets, and generally causing mayhem.
“I told my coach, Bharat Arun sir, I told him that I’m bowling well, it’s all money in the bank and it will all cash in one day, whenever it is, whenever you require it the most,” Bumrah says. “In the next game, the Boxing Day match, where we needed to win the series, it cashed in. We won the match, we won the series. I did nothing different. Some very good deliveries in Perth did not get wickets, but in Melbourne, I got an edge without even beating a batsman once.”
Doing it again and again
What makes it truly remarkable is that 2018 was Bumrah’s debut year in Tests and only his second year in international cricket. How exactly did he acquire his skills?
“I like to learn, I always want to learn new things,” he says. “I’m always asking people, ‘what do you think I can add?’ I am asking players. I ask coaches. I keep on adding, keep on adding new things all the time.”
Part of that learning happens from watching other bowlers operate in places they know best.
“If I’m going to England, I ask myself, what does James Anderson do? I like to do a lot of homework.”
Once he’s got a plan ready, or he’s got a new skill that he’s decided to learn, Bumrah hits the nets and goes into a trance. “I just keep trying to do it, again and again, all the time in the nets,” Bumrah says. “Just again and again, till you’re confident of doing it in the game.”
Not everyone enjoys this obsessive practice mode, but Bumrah does. For him, it’s half the joy of being a professional cricketer. But not everything is acquired through sheer graft; Bumrah is also a gifted learner who can pick up something new and execute it even as he’s going from one session to the next.
“Yes, I always learn on the go,” he says. “Like the way I started in South Africa (where he made his Test debut in January 2018). I’d never gone to South Africa. I was playing my first Test. When you play in India, you look to bowl full because there’s not a lot of bounce over here. But in South Africa, I quickly realised that when I bowled full, they play through the line and it’s easier for them to play that length.”
Bumrah began to analyse how Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn were bowling. What was their length? What was their line? By the second innings, he had fixed his own length to match theirs. “I was hitting the deck, bowling a fuller length only if the situation permitted.”
Bumrah had just one wicket to show in the first innings, in the second, he had three. By the time he was done playing his third Test in the series, he had picked up his first five-wicket haul.
A few months down the line, India were touring England. Bumrah had spent those months working on a skill he was not confident of—a ball that swings into a left-handed batsman. He was also still figuring out how to make the new ball swing.
On the fourth Test of the series in Southampton, Bumrah did both, and left England opener Keaton Jennings in a comical tangle, caught in front of his wicket with an express delivery that veered sharply in. “I had heard a Sky Sports commentator saying that I don’t have the in-swinger to the left hander, so the left hander can leave the ball outside off stump, they don’t have to play,” Bumrah says. “In my head, I knew that I had the in-swinger. I thought if the players are listening, and if they don’t know that I have it…
“So, I bowl 2-3 deliveries that move out and I see that Jennings was just leaving the ball without even, you know, giving it a thought. I realised now, this is the time. In England, it helps as well because the ball actually swings!”
Having played just over a year of Test match cricket, Bumrah is now a veteran. He has four five-wicket hauls in Tests, and they have come in four different countries—South Africa, England, Australia and West Indies in 2019—all on his first set of tours. No other bowler from Asia can claim that. Not Wasim Akram. Not Waqar Younis.
Bumrah now shuffles and skips in with that awkward approach and knows exactly what he needs to do on what pitch. If India bats first and Bumrah gets to see the wicket in action, he starts straight off hitting the right lengths. If India are bowling first, Bumrah learns and adapts through the match. In an analysis done by Espncricinfo.com, Bumrah’s spell by spell break up is astounding; he cuts his average and his strike rate by half from the first to second spell, and those numbers just keep dropping (his average, for example, goes from 40.33 in spell 1 to 11 in spell 5).
“No other India bowler since Bumrah’s debut has any such pattern over spells,” the article notes.
“It’s not easy,” Bumrah says of his ability to adapt. “But I am always keen on that challenge. I look forward to it, instead of being scared that (in trying to adapt) I will lose something that I have. I try something new, but without changing my game too much. If it’s not comfortable, then I try not to do it.”
For someone who is so hungry to learn, Bumrah has many teachers. He lists India’s bowling coach Arun, fellow fast bowlers Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar; and from the Mumbai Indians set up, Shane Bond, Lasith Malinga, and Mitchell Johnson.
Yet, he is a self-taught bowler. His only stint with coaching before he turned into a professional cricketer was a camp in school. He is not the product of a system, and no particular person has shaped his bowling.
“All my cricket I’ve learned from the TV,” Bumrah says. “Even now, I look at videos and I listen to feedback, and then I like to prepare on my own, the way I want to. I try to do the analysis myself. Because on the cricket ground, I will be alone. Nobody’s going to be there to help me so I should be able to help myself.”
What about learning the yorker from his Mumbai Indians teammate and mentor Malinga?
“Many people believe that he taught me the yorker, but that’s not true,” Bumrah says. “He did not teach me anything on the field. The things I learnt from him are about the mind. How to handle different situations. How to not get angry. How to make a plan for a batsman.”
For Bumrah, the yorker is a ball that conveys the autobiographical, a ball that takes him back to his childhood. It tells the story about a young boy trying not to annoy his mother while bowling alone for hours in the corridor of his house. If the ball bounced and hit the wall, there were two sounds, two resounding thumps. If, instead, he managed to hit the edge where the floor and the wall met, there would only be a dull thud. He aimed for that skirting. (It also explains his short run up—there was simply no space for a longer one in the places he played in growing up.)
“If I was not out playing, I was watching cricket on TV. I always enjoyed bowlers, taking wickets, bowling fast, liked watching the stumps, you know, being rattled. I thought ‘I’d like to do that’. In my head, I was Brett Lee, I was bowling like this, I was bowling like that...I was copying my heroes.”
Then Bumrah took those skills to the streets. “We had rubber balls, super tight ones, with a seam, it used to swing,” Bumrah says. “We did not play on pitches, so there was no seam movement or length balls or caught behinds. It was all about trying to hit the batsman on the full. If you want to take wickets you have to bowl yorkers. I still believe that’s what makes me street smart, because it’s very easy to get hit when you’re playing rubber ball. As a bowler you have to find out ways of how not to get hit.”
Bumrah grew up in a sprawling, fraying apartment complex in Ahmedabad. His father passed away when he was seven, and he and his older sister were brought up by a single mother whose husband’s family had decided to sever contact with her. For Bumrah’s mother, a school teacher who later became the principal of a school and found more stable footing, those were uncertain times.
“It was not like we were struggling to put food on the table, but when I started to really play cricket, I had just one pair of trousers, one T-shirt, and not very good shoes. If I had to go somewhere to play, I had to cycle, because I did not have the money for transport.”
Those tough days made him what he is, Bumrah says, and instilled in him a deep belief in his own abilities, and a certain brand of fearlessness.
It has stood him in good stead through the almost cinematic arc of his career. Consider his entry into big time cricket, where he was spotted by the former India coach John Wright in 2013—then Mumbai Indians’ coach—in a domestic T20 match between Gujarat and Mumbai. Bumrah was 18, and had just made a breakthrough at the state level. Next thing he knew, he had a call from the Mumbai Indians asking him to join the team in Bengaluru.
“When I came to Bangalore, I only had the Gujarat team’s clothing,” Bumrah says. “Nobody had seen me before (in the Mumbai Indians team). I was asked to bowl. This was at Chinnaswamy, and back then there was a lot of grass on the wicket and it was seaming. I bowled to Sachin Tendulkar, to Ricky Ponting, everyone.”
The story goes that Tendulkar walked up to Wright after facing Bumrah and said “it’s hard to pick this boy”. “I don’t know if that happened because back then I was a little scared of talking to people, you can’t ask Tendulkar ‘how’s my bowling’? I listened a lot, I didn’t talk a lot.”
Talking was the only thing Bumrah was scared about. With the ball in hand, all he could think of was the joy of making it do what he wanted it to on a lively pitch.
“Because that’s the thing that I was always confident about, my game.”
Clothes of the India team
He was equally unfazed by his India debut, which came unexpectedly after an injury to Shami as India was touring Australia in 2016.
“I took a direct flight from Delhi to Sydney, a long flight,” Bumrah says. “I remember watching two movies. I had no nerves. I was not sure that I was going to play, but I was very happy. Now at least I’ll get my clothes of the Indian team!”
The morning he landed, he was looking forward to the afternoon training session—“I’m in the Indian team, no jet lag, and if the team sees what I do in the nets, maybe I would get a chance.”
But the session was rained out, and Bumrah thought that there was no chance of him making the ODI team. India were 4-0 down heading into the last ODI. On the morning of the match, at the team meeting, he was told he would play.
“Then I was a little nervous, I was not prepared,” he says. “But sometimes it is best that you don’t overanalyse, you just go with the flow.”
He expected a bowling plan, some discussions with the coach and the captain, but that did not happen. Instead, he was straight on the field. When the opening bowlers were done with their spells, MS Dhoni, then the captain, gave him the ball.
“He told me, ‘whatever field you want, you just tell me and we’ll give you that, just bowl like you know how to bowl,” Bumrah says.
And this is when Bumrah learnt his most important lesson in cricket, the reason why his India debut still remains his most memorable game.
“I realised that coming from domestic cricket to international cricket, it’s only a jump of mindset,” he says. “Rather than trying to change things or think that I’m bowling to Steve Smith or David Warner, I could just try to do the things that I was doing in domestic cricket, play this like I’m playing for Gujarat. I was happy.”
Smith was his first international wicket.
“I have never been overwhelmed,” he says. “Never. Even in the IPL when I played in front of big crowds before playing for the country. I hardly pay attention to what’s going on around me. For me it’s all about enjoyment; I play because I love the game. We used to play as kids on empty grounds, nobody would see what we are doing.”
So does it still feel like that when he gets the ball in his hands? Like a child without a thought in the world, doing the thing he loves the most?
“Yes,” Bumrah says. “It’s the same feeling.”