Jasprit Bumrah is a magician at his job

Jasprit Bumrah is a magician at his job

Like a stalled race horse waiting for the gate to open, he waits for the batsman to settle into his stance. The unconscious movements of the shoulders already gone, he composes himself for a microsecond, then walks briskly, holding the ball in both hands above his head. After a few quick strides, he picks up speed, exploding across the bowling crease with his right elbow extended and left knee firmly tucked in. The ball that leaves his hand is now a weapon of destruction. It can take shape in the air, vary on pitching and top off, as Reeza Hendricks found out. It can defy physics and tail in late, as Marco Jansen found out in his very shocking experience.

It can also start outside off stump and come in relentlessly, arriving at toes and stumps as if guided by radar. Doubtful? Ask Ollie Pope. And it can catch and turn, with the slightest flick of the fingers, slowing down the pace, and rattling the wood through defences. Phil Salt would reluctantly nod his head in approval.

Is there anything Jasprit Bumrah can't do with a cricket ball? Maybe left-arm wrist spin, yes, for now. But there's nothing he can't do with his right hand, fingers and wrist. Not to right-handers, not to left-handers. Not with the new cherry, not with the old ball. Not in Test cricket, not in the limited-overs variants. Bumrah is the finest bowler of his generation, unique in his own way, incredibly skilful and incredibly hardworking.

Ace Marksman

Despite the squad comprising some of the finest batsmen in the game, Rohit Sharma knew that India's campaign at the T20 World Cup would depend on how his main hitman performed. He had a maximum of 24 balls in each match, but those four overs often became the difference between victory and defeat. And while he was only allowed to bowl 24 legal deliveries, his influence was such that around his overs, other bowlers benefited. Bumrah's new ball bowler and understudy Arshdeep Singh took the joint-most wickets in the tournament with Afghanistan's Fazalhaq Farooqi with 17 wickets.

Bumrah was third on that chart, but he was the best bowler of the tournament and officially – as if confirmation was needed – the best player of the tournament. His 15 wickets came at an average of 8.26, a strike-rate of 11.86 and a pretty ridiculous economy of 4.17. He bowled 29.4 of a possible 32 overs in eight matches and conceded only 12 boundaries – 10 fours and two sixes – out of a total of 124 runs scored off his bowling; the stats show that 26% of those runs came when batsmen were not in control.

These are cold, dull, mundane statistics, but they tell a story in themselves. They don't tell us how much Bumrah's presence has benefited India, and intimidated opponents.

demand of time

Imagine you are Rohit, who can call Bumrah to the bowling crease when he needs control or wickets. In T20 cricket, most of the time one is not more important than the other. Sometimes, a 'control over' can be more damaging than a double-wicket maiden. Like in the final. Axar Patel's last over, in what was a brilliant World Cup for him, went for 24, with Heinrich Klaasen embarking on a boundary-bashing spree. That mammoth over brought the equation down to 30 runs from 30 balls, with six wickets in hand.

For most of the World Cup, Rohit has used Bumrah occasionally in the 16th over, mainly in the 17th and then reserved him for the 19th over, which is usually bowled by the best bowler in the line-up. This time, after Klaasen's fireworks, he needed breathing space. He needed someone who could bring some sanity to proceedings, a reliable option who could drag the game, take the chase deeper. The choice was a no-brainer.

Ask and he will give

Bumrah bowled a brilliant 16th ball. He knew his captain trusted him to handle things. He knew the fate of the final depended on the 16th ball. They couldn't have won the final in those six balls, but with the magic he had displayed in the last seven matches and in his first two overs in the title match, they could have lost. If they didn't feel any panic, they wouldn't be human. But wait, maybe they aren't human? Maybe they are super-human, above human, beyond human.

Bumrah was at the top of his game, that over was an event in itself. Just four singles. Four runs away from the target, but the ball was moving a bit. Bumrah is dangerous even when the ball is not doing anything. When it is moving a bit, well…

Bumrah couldn't do it all alone. He could bowl only 25% of the remaining 24 balls, of which South Africa needed 26. He needed help. He needed support. He needed more than one bowler to back him. He found support in Hardik Pandya and Arshdeep, who was his protégé if ever there was one. But it was Bumrah who was making the difference. A mile for the country, as the proverb goes.

The long gap between Bumrah's 16th and Hardik's 17th shot, to recover from Rishabh Pant's knee injury, must have been fraying Klaasen's nerves, as there is no other explanation for his optimistic attitude to Hardik's first ball, which went to Pant. Jensen entered after scoring 26 runs off 23 balls. Chances are still in South Africa's favor, but with India in strength and momentum, the disappointment of ten minutes ago has turned into the possibility of a stunning robbery. Dangerous player Klaasen out, Bumrah has six balls left.

Rohit could have stuck to his strategy, brought in Arshdeep in the 18th over, held back Bumrah in the next over, but he trusted his intuition. On instinct. With blind faith in his enforcer. Not for the first time, Bumrah did not let him down.

If number 16 was brilliant, number 18 was out of the world. Out of this world, as the tournament's catchline was shouted from different parts of the ground. Two runs, Jensen hits a brilliant shot, off balance, job almost done.

more than a hitman

Bumrah is now eight and a half years into international cricket, enough time for him to transform from a bowler, no matter how accomplished, to a leader, a guide. Yes, he was tired of the ball, but his job as a competitor was not over. He had already displayed his leadership skills by walking up to Axar for a high-five after a 24-run over. After Quinton de Kock hit Arshdeep for a six over long leg, he called the bowler three times from short third-man, and clapped furiously, encouraging his younger partner. A fielding change led to de Kock being holed out at long leg off the next ball. Of course it was coincidence. Poor cricket from the protean keeper, without a doubt. No wonder Arshdeep admitted that many of his 17 wickets came because of the pressure exerted by Bumrah at the other end, because batsmen felt freedom against Bumrah because they were not going to get anything, absolutely nothing, from him.

This is not to simply romanticise the world's premier bowler. If anything, words cannot describe what Bumrah is doing these days, ball after ball, probing over after probing over. You have to be on the field to experience the electricity when he is at the peak of his bowling. You have to see for yourself the slight horror on the batsman's face, whether it is Jos Buttler or Keshav Maharaj, David Warner or Naveen-ul-Haq, Babar Azam or Saurabh Netravalkar. They know they are on target, and even though Bumrah is not Abhinav Bindra, they rarely miss.

A fortnight ago, former India pacer Lakshmipathy Balaji told this writer that if Bumrah could single-handedly win India the World Cup like the great Pakistan bowler did against England in the 1992 World Cup final, he would cement his legacy as the second-best Asian pacer after Wasim Akram. Balaji reflected on the similarities between Bumrah and Akram – generating pace and momentum and power from the upper body rather than the lower body, as most conventional pacers do. Using the bowling arm, shoulder, wrist and fingers to weave his magic. Keeping the pitch out of the equation. Balaji, who himself had battled a career-threatening back injury to make a comeback for India, was amazed at the improvement in Bumrah after his back surgery last year.

“He is the most complete fast bowler right now. Look at him – Test cricket, white-ball cricket, it doesn't matter,” the Tamil Nadu coach said. “With the new ball he can get the job done. With the old ball he can reverse brilliantly. The middle overs in limited-overs matches, his variations and his performances make him a wicket-taking bowler and not someone who just stops the flow of runs. If there is a more versatile and dangerous fast bowler right now, I don't know who it is.”

You are not alone, Bala, you are not alone at all. There is Bumrah, there is daylight, and then there is the chasing team.

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