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Feature

Jasprit Bumrah is a species of exactly one

He was impossible to have imagined into being until he arrived and is impossible to replicate once he's gone.

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
13-Nov-2023
Indulge me a little. Say we're putting together the ideal fast bowler for the modern game. Yes, of course, there is no such thing as the perfect fast bowler. Nothing is perfect and fast bowlers are not put together through some identikit mass assembly. Fast bowlers are like rocks, weathered slowly over time.
Still, humour me. What would you put in there?
Control? Absolutely crucial. If you were to choose one fast bowler from the modern era who gave you unerring control, you'd pick Glenn McGrath. Few bowlers understood better than he did that to defend is to attack, and that it isn't a concession to the batter. On any surface, against any batter, in an instant McGrath would know the right lengths to hit. Quite often, he'd decide his own natural length was perfect for almost any pitch and nobody could disagree.
Magic would be a necessary element. If you were to pick one fast bowler for the craft of bowling, you might pick Wasim Akram (you could pick James Anderson and it wouldn't be the wrong choice but we're deep in white-ball territory here). Few did those bits better, swinging the new ball both ways, reversing an older one, bowling mean bouncers and pulling things out in the middle overs that were basically the wonder of wrists, fingers and mind, disregarding the pitch with precisely the disdain a strip of clay and mud otherwise should be.
A blessing from nature would be an unusual action. Say, Lasith Malinga. Difficult to locate on first viewings, like one of those optical illusion mindbenders, and pretty disorienting the rest of the time. An action that is counterintuitive to bowling fast and an action made, really, for pure mischief and mayhem.
Now put all of this together. And then throw it all away because the headline has already told you where this is going and Jasprit Bumrah is Jasprit Bumrah, a species - as this World Cup has so vividly demonstrated - of exactly one.
Don't mistake this last instruction as some shade being thrown, that Bumrah is somehow a composite as well as bigger than the sum of those three bowlers. Nobody's comparing. GOAT is a thing but every great first of all marks their own era.
These traits are simply reference points, a way to make sense of the rarefied peak that Bumrah is operating at in the present, drawing from what we have already made sense of in the past. Perhaps the best way to explain this is in a way that doesn't make sense at first. But if it was ever possible to see a whisper in something, then it is of these three in watching Bumrah bowl at this World Cup; whispers, fleeting and given to misunderstandings as they are but, in the moments and moods he has generated, traveling with the hard certainty of truth.
Start, for instance, with the meanness and exactness of Bumrah's new-ball spells. Even if you hadn't watched a ball, the data would be enough. He has conceded 2.94 runs an over in the first 10 overs of an innings, an economy rate unseen in Tests these days let alone a 50-over World Cup fuelled by four years of T20 batting boom. Meanwhile, all other bowlers in the tournament have gone at 5.51 per over in this phase. No other bowler has gone at less than four per over, let alone under three.
If you have seen him, then immediately you understand that the tone he has set at the start of an innings is as unforgiving as McGrath used to set. Forget scoring, how is one expected to survive this? No chance if, very first ball, he produces the one that did for poor Pathum Nissanka, a quick, wicked legbreak pinning him on the pads after beating his outside edge. So many things were perfect about that ball, but none more than a length best described in words rather than metres: can't drive at it, can't hang back to it, can't do much with it but hope. New-ball champions like Trent Boult, Mitchell Starc and Shaheen Afridi have struggled with their lengths early on this tournament and here, first ball, was Bumrah finding the perfect one.
He can also pick at a batter's technique and impulses like one does at a scab, as he did with Mitchell Marsh. Five balls, all good wheels and tight enough around that fourth stump that Marsh had to play at four, before a sixth that hooped in sharply to that fourth stump, back of a length, putting Marsh in two minds: to play or not to play, to be or not to be? Marsh, who never leaves any doubt upon a shot he has played, not playing, not leaving, totally doubting, totally edging to slip.
And then when the ball has gotten softer and older, or the pitch has lost freshness, or there are no floodlights in play, Bumrah has shown that he needs nothing other than his own audacity. In a way, and aptly, the loudest whisper was from the Pakistan game. Two balls, mid-innings, across the 34th and 36th overs, one that came in, one that straightened, both hitting the stumps, together derailing an innings. Let's just leave those details there, imagining knowing commiserations from Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis to Mohammad Rizwan and Shadab Khan for being at the wrong end of such exhilarating skill and high-profile spectacle.
Nearly half of his wickets have come at the death, the phase where he has bowled the least number of balls (because, India's attack). But the efficiency feels right for a bowler who was mentored by Malinga at Mumbai Indians. Wickets have come off cutters, slower bouncers, seam-up deliveries and the yorker, a proper shop window of death-bowling goodies.
All told, the impact has been twofold, of being both box-office and arthouse, getting wickets through spells of pressure-building but also able to produce, from nothing, the glory ball, satisfying the urges of both the cerebral obsessives as well as the masses.
It is tempting to look at Bumrah as the culmination of a number of push and pulls on Indian cricket over the last three decades. The MRF pace academy, the IPL and the globalisation it wrought, the boundless resource to invest upon a player, on structures. Twenty years ago, Ashish Nehra hit 149 kph in a World Cup and it felt like a seminal moment, the moment where India stopped producing earnest Right-Arm Engineers, but proper fast bowlers.
It zig-zagged its way thereafter, through the lost promise of Irfan Pathan, Sreesanth and RP Singh, the Dhoni era where fast bowlers were mostly surplus, through the slow ripening of Zaheer Khan, through Ishant Sharma 1.0 and then 2.0. Overall, the progression has been unmistakably upwards. Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami fit into this continuum, good natural resources further refined and shaped by robust systems into stronger, fitter, smarter fast bowlers.
Bumrah? Truth be told, he's no culmination of any legacy and neither can he be the start of another. He isn't, because no line anywhere in the world leads to a Bumrah. He is an outlier, a dot all by itself in the corner on that line graph of Indian pace; impossible to have imagined into being until he arrived, impossible to replicate once he's gone. If we're lucky, he might turn up as a whisper himself sometime deep in the future.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo