The Insider

Why Bumrah is hard to face

A look at the factors that make him a challenge for batsmen

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
Batsmen usually set the bowling machine about five miles an hour slower than the pace they like to face. The reason is that they have to make an allowance for not being able to watch the bowler running in, loading up in his action and releasing the ball. Since you don't get time to prepare, you feel rushed.
What is it that the eyes see and the mind processes that allows you to react appropriately? A batsman must start his trigger movement around the time the bowler takes off in his jump and must finish before the ball has been released. Syncing the trigger movement with the bowler's action is one of the toughest things to master.
Let's dig deeper. The moment you see the ball being released from the bowler's hand, you need to make a few decisions: play or leave, go forward or move back, play an attacking shot or a defensive one. Once the mind has processed this information, it must send signals to the body to react accordingly. Mind you, all this needs to be done in about a quarter of a second. Sounds complicated? It is, indeed, if you have not trained your mind to pick up cues that aren't visible to a novice.
Matthew Syed, a former international table tennis player, wrote about his experience playing tennis. Though the ball was served at him by a tennis player a lot slower than he would normally serve, Syed struggled to get his racket to it. Given the space involved is a lot larger in tennis than table tennis, you would assume that an international player would have the skills to move between the two similar sports relatively seamlessly. The reason why Syed could hit the faster ping-pong ball across a small table and struggled against a slower tennis ball on a larger court was the inability of his brain to see specific cues relating to tennis.
That's what happens to batsmen when they play a bowler with an unorthodox action. He feels a yard faster than he actually is, for the brain takes a fraction longer to make sense of the information it is processing.
Jasprit Bumrah's unorthodox action gave him a head-start that is not available to other bowlers with "regular" actions. One of the basics of bowling is that when the non-bowling hand is up, the bowling hand is somewhere close to the waist, and when the non-bowling arm starts its downward journey, the bowling arm moves upwards in order to release the ball. This does not happen in a conventional manner with Bumrah, for the non-bowling arm is neither bent nor does it go up like with more textbook bowlers. At one point in his action, both arms are stretched out and parallel to the ground - a sight batsmen are not used to seeing while preparing to play a fast bowler.
But then years of training also enable batsmen to get used to a new action reasonably quickly, and if that's the only difficulty the bowler is posing, he will be neutralised soon. Once the novelty of his unorthodox action fades away, it's vital for such a bowler to produce something special on a regular basis to stay relevant. And that's where Bumrah is successful. As batsmen were getting used his action, he was adding more arrows to his quiver.
When batsmen play a bowler with an unorthodox action, he feels a yard faster than he actually is, for the brain takes a fraction longer to make sense of the information it is processing
He started as a bowler who would bowl from the corner of the box and predominantly bring the ball back into the right-hand batsman. Playing those exaggerated angles is relatively easy - you mostly play inside the line without worrying about the ball going away. That's when Bumrah began to straighten his wrist while delivering. That allowed him to deliver the ball with the seam titled towards third man, getting the ball to leave the right-hander. Also, he came a fraction closer to the stumps to cut the angle down.
There's a giveaway, in hindsight, with regard to which way the ball is going. For outswingers, his bowling arm finishes across his torso, and for inswingers it finishes in the region of his right hip. Of course, that's not something that batsmen can spot and gain advantage from.
You must have heard the commentators talk about Bumrah bowling a heavy ball. What exactly does that exactly mean?
Some bowlers have the ability to hit the bat harder than the rest. These are the ones who hit the deck hard and manage to extract more from the surface than others, in terms of both pace and bounce. Generally it's the extra bounce that gives an impression of a bowler hitting the bat harder, because the impact is a few inches higher than where the sweet spot is. In addition, if you impart enough backspin on the ball at the time of release - which not all hit-the-deck-hard bowlers manage - the ball skids off the surface as it would for the "release" bowlers, the ones who rely more on swing and lateral movement. So the combination makes Bumrah fall in a rare category.
Since his evolution into a top-flight bowler came about while playing white-ball cricket, he has managed to hold on to the qualities essential for succeeding in the shorter formats, while adding those needed to suit the requirements of Test cricket. Most bowlers follow a specific pattern of their own - the likes of, say, Josh Hazlewood, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami are quite similar in the way they operate, ball after ball, and as a batsman you align yourself to that pattern. But Bumrah, like a lot of other hit-the-deck bowlers, doesn't follow a specific pattern. It's not often that you will see him settle into a rhythm of bowling six balls in the same area; this is something he acquired playing white-ball cricket. He keeps varying without either bowling loose balls or overdoing the variations. And he does not get carried away and bowl a yard shorter either.
The variety of skills, control in execution and the understanding of when to use them has made Bumrah the best bowler in the world across three formats.

Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash