Jasprit Bumrah’s smile provides a pathway to his mind. And, even on the cricket field, he smiles a lot.
Bumrah smiles when he takes a wicket, he smiles when he curls the ball around the outside edge of the bat or brings it back in sharply and cuts the batsman in half. He smiles when he elicits a nick that flies over the slip or when he is punished for a rare lapse in execution and the ball speeds away to the boundary.
It’s almost as if, beyond the joy of playing the game, Bumrah is amused by the quirks of the wonderful byplay between bat and ball that has so entranced him. Bowling isn’t just a job for him, it is his way of expressing himself, his skills, his unique talent.
For some reason, the famed Bumrah smile had gone AWOL in Johannesburg last week, during the second Test. It was replaced by a snappy snarl, the occasional growl, rare testiness and irritability. Jasprit Bumrah wasn’t a man at peace with himself at The Wanderers; unsurprisingly, it manifested itself in a scarcely believable sub-par performance on a surface he knows he should have exploited better.
With considerable lateral movement, significant pace and appreciable bounce, the stage seemed set for Bumrah to bowl India to their maiden series success on South African soil. The hosts needed 240 to deny India, a stiff fourth-innings ask with the dice heavily loaded against the batsmen. All India’s pacemen needed to do was stick to their core disciplines and allow the conditions to do the job for them. Instead, what they did was go searching for wickets, thereby veering away from the basics that have made them such a formidable force across the world.
Bumrah was the primary culprit – for want of a better word – as he went for 70 from 17 wicketless overs. It was as if an impostor bearing striking physical resemblance had replaced the original. Resultantly, India failed to make the desired inroads despite the best efforts of Mohammed Shami and Shardul Thakur, allowing South Africa to square the series with staggering ease.
With everything on the line in the decider in Cape Town, India needed their best batsman bar none and their lead paceman, with due respect to Shami, to put their hand up. Virat Kohli kept up his end of the bargain on Tuesday’s opening day with an innings of remarkable restraint. It was now up to Bumrah to back up his captain’s heroics.
The move from the rarefied air of Johannesburg to the coastal climes of Cape Town seemed to have done Bumrah a world of good. Perhaps some of it had to do with the soothing environs of beautiful Newlands, with the majestic Table Mountain offering a spectacular backdrop, but it’s almost certain that most of it had to do with unforgiving self-introspection. Like all champion performers, Bumrah accepted the bad day in Johannesburg for what it was and decided to revert to the best version of himself, however simplistic that might sound.
At the same venue where he cut his teeth in Test cricket four years back, Bumrah put South Africa through a searching examination on Wednesday. A symphony that began late on Tuesday evening peaked to a crescendo by mid-afternoon on day two. A seventh five-wicket haul wasn’t just a formality, it was an inevitability, a reaffirmation of Bumrah’s effectiveness when he sticks to being the naturally smiling assassin.
The smile manifested itself even before he turned Dean Elgar into a pretzel whilst squaring him up and forcing him to edge to first slip in the short passage to stumps on the first evening. It grew in proportion when Aiden Markram, ill-advisedly, shouldered arms to a break-backer in the first over on the second morning and was greeted with the deafening death rattle as the ball homed in on the off-stump. It remained plastered on his face when Keegan Petersen batted beautifully, belying his lack of experience with an innings of true incandescence, and when Temba Bavuma briefly embraced adventurism. After a brief hiatus, Bumrah had started to enjoy the nuances of the Test game, the gentle nip-and-tuck, the thrust and parry, the bluff and the bluster.
Bumrah on song is an exhilarating sight, a bundle of straight-lined arms and legs that defy the biomechanics of bowling and lend greater aura to the magic that emanates from his right hand. As run-ups and actions go, there is little classical about the strapping 28-year-old. A brisk ‘walk-up’ gives way to a stuttering, short-stepped shuffle and culminates in a brief gallop at the end of which he uses the braced left knee, the hyperextending right arm, his innate strength and a snappy wrist to propel the ball at great pace towards the batsman. Because of the hyperextension, his hand goes further back in his loading that most other bowlers and comes down quicker, lending a catapult-like slingshot thrust to his delivery. That same trait allows him to release the ball a little later than others, which means he hits lengths and procures bounce that conventional wisdom suggests he should not.
On Wednesday, the best of Bumrah was on full view. It was a shame there were no spectators at Newlands to partake of the entertainment first-hand, but even on television, it was obvious that the master was at work, the real deal had resurfaced. The ball climbed alarmingly, nipped back off a length as if possessed, straightened or darted away as if it had a mind of its own. The scoreboard will reflect figures of 23.3-8-42-5. Impressive as they are, they can’t do full justice to the wares Bumrah showcased as he shone the brightest on a beautifully sunny day in Cape Town.
At some stage over the next couple of days, Kohli will expect his lynchpin to pull off an encore in the second innings and bring India’s aspirations to fruition. This time, Bumrah will be up for it in terms of effort and execution, which is all the skipper will really ask of him.