Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm

Australia's music riffs are stuck in the last century. They still love the '80s and '90s rock headliners - The Police, REM, Cranberries and their homegrown Acca Dacca - AC/DC. During the third Test at Melbourne, a group of piss-drunk Aussie supporters piped in an improvised version of The Cranberries' 'Zombie' into Jasprit Bumrah's ears. The Indian seamer was manning the third man after a long afternoon spell under the scorching Perth sun, kicking the sweat off his brow like a cigarette butt, when they took off with their protest rave.

What's in your head
In your head
Bumrah, Bumrah
Bum…rah…rah…rah

Dolores O’Riordan’s powerful Irish grunge is not Bumrah’s type of music. He grooves more to Punjabi pop and Bollywood. But he got the drift, smiled and waved at them. It got louder, even as Bumrah's smile got wider. The Australian crowd are notorious for barracking. But it's their perverse way of showing appreciation. To be barracked is to be loved.

Jasprit Bumrah is a freak, in more ways than one. Someone like Muttiah Muralitharan (bent elbows), Shoaib Akhtar (abnormal upper limbs) or Usain Bolt (unnatural stride). His right leg appears to strike the track with about 13 percent more peak force than his left leg. And with each stride, his left leg remains on the ground about 14 percent longer than his right leg.

Like the crowd, the retinue of former Australian players-turned-commentators are as awe-struck as they are envious of him. Over the years, they've been more accustomed to seeing repetitive mediocrity of rag-tag men from India. So disdained were they that former Australian opener Michael Slater still regrets getting out on 91 against Venkatesh Prasad in 1999. "He was an angry man, but used to hit 120 clicks. He bowls leg-side and I glance it to the only man on leg-side. I felt gutted, and he then gave the biggest send-off I ever had," he narrates.

There were exceptions like the crafty Kapil Dev and Zaheer Khan or the rapid Javagal Srinath, but not someone as preciously gifted as Bumrah. The rest were glorified trundlers, and those that had pace were scatterguns, struggling to hit the right notes, overdoing the short stuff and then overreaching with the full balls. Nothing is stamped in memory, maybe the Ishant-Ponting spell in Perth. Most of the other notable performances like Ajit Agarakar's 6/41 at Adelaide in 2004 is remembered for the figures than the feeling.

But Bumrah, in one series alone, has gifted several, definitive moments. Like the slower-ball yorker that flummoxed Shaun Marsh, or the lifter that nailed him in Adelaide, the ball kicked in from back of length and shaped a shade away after pitching, or the bouncer that clattered into Marcus Harris's helmet in Perth. Such dread, few Indian seamers of the past, have induced. Agrees former Australian pacer Damien Fleming: "He has given that something extra for the team. Someone who can bowl serious pace, can rattle them with a variety of deliveries, bouncer, yorker and slower balls. It's tough to think of a better-skilled Indian pace bowler in recent times," he says.

He has also busted the perceptions about Indian pacers - the icon who tore the iconoclasts. In fact, in this series, he has far out-done the Australian seamers, which is rare. Collectively, several waves of South African pace-firms have outmatched the hosts his century, but none so inpidually or sustainedly since Curtly Ambrose back in the '90s. As with Ambrose, he can be lethal on unhelpful surfaces, and in helpful conditions unplayable. In Australia alone, he bowled on three different wickets: Adelaide was moderately fast; Perth was quicker, though not trampolining; Melbourne was sluggish. In isolation, three of these varied conditions aren't quite suited to fast bowlers. He had to make his own fortune. "That's what good fast bowlers do, they have the smarts to bowl in all conditions. While a particular surface or condition might suit them more, they find a method that works in a particular condition. That's why he's probably the best in the world," he observes.

Another stamp of Aussie acceptance came during a clickbait in-stadium poll in Sydney. The announcer roared: "Who do you want to face, the Australian bowlers or Bumrah?" As much as 86 per cent polled for the host bowlers, who before the series were considered the finest quartet in Test cricket at the moment. That tells the story behind the barracking.

*****

A couple of Australian commentators were discussing Kohli. One reckoned his single-minded focus as the standout trait of his greatness. "You see Kohli, when he's in the middle, he's only thinking of runs, not anything else. Not the bowler, not the pitch, not the conditions, as if it's a personal battle between him and the ball."

In a different way, Bumrah's elemental battle too is similar, a personal tussle between the ball and himself. A bowler can't be so detached as a batsman. He needs to work out the pitch, work over the batsman, work with the conditions. Tough job that is, but in the end it's about making the ball do as the bowler whims. Like the laser-guided precision of the ball's landing, the exact degree of movement, which is no more than a few millimetres, the perfect length to hit.

Such heightened mastery requires patience, commitment and devotion to craft. But Bumrah is a perfectionist. His Gujarat coach Vijay Patel tells the story of how he nuanced the outgoing delivery. "He comes to practice with a clear mind as to what he has to do, which area he has to perfect. A couple of season ago, he struggled with the outgoing delivery, so for maybe four-five weeks, he kept working on this single delivery. This was besides other routines like the gym and a bit of batting. Once he gets his mind into it, he's so passionate about achieving it," he says.

Now, he's one of the finest practitioners of the out-swinger, which fixates Fleming. "To get the ball to shape away at his pace and with his peculiar release is very difficult for batsmen." No just swing, he can seam the ball away as well, a nuanced manipulator of the ball who on song can move it in or out, late and to order according to circumstances.

Not just the out-swinger, he has an assortment of tricks which he pulls out on demand. From the new-age slow-ball yorkers to the old-fashioned cutters, from conventional swing and seam to reverse swing, there are few tricks that he isn't capable of pulling off. Like fusion music, he can mix it too - the Marsh dismissal was a classic case, when he released the ball like a conventional off-cutter before it swung and dropped like a slow-ball yorker. Thus, he is the pace-bowling equivalent of a wrist-spinner with a leg-break and googly.

*****

Bumrah is an antithesis to a thrillingly fearsome fast bowler. He smiles disarmingly, listens patiently to the instructions flying around from the arc of fielders behind him, gently scrubs the glazing red ball on the pleats of his sparkling white trousers before he looks benignly at the pitch. The run-up is like the intro of a tabla concert, low pitch gathering a sudden, furious tempo. Fast bowlers, the really fast ones, aren't designed that way.

But Bumrah is a freak, in more ways than one. Someone like Muttiah Muralitharan (bent elbows), Shoaib Akhtar (abnormal upper limbs) or Usain Bolt (unnatural stride). His right leg appears to strike the track with about 13 percent more peak force than his left leg. And with each stride, his left leg remains on the ground about 14 percent longer than his right leg. This runs counter to conventional wisdom that an uneven stride tends to slow a runner down.

But as with Bolt, Akhtar and Muralitharan, no one mended with his natural action. He is a self-taught bowler but the role of mother Daljeet, a primary school principal can’t be undermined. Daljeet had a couple of rules for her pre-teen cricket-obsessed son Jappi: Stay indoors and don’t raise a din when she was in the middle of her well-earned siesta. The obedient son found a way out, by directing his balls at the floor skirting, this muffled the thud didn’t carry to the bedroom where his mother slept.

Raised by his mother, after his father died when he was seven, Bumrah, by all accounts, was a calm and responsible child. Daljeet had reservations about her only son pursuing cricket, an unsual career choice with little success rate. Little did she know that her son had a one-in-a-million action with potential to be a never-seen-before Indian pacer who can consistently bowl in the high 140kphs.

Bumrah would spend hours playing backyard cricket all unto himself, trying to hit a pair of shoes at yorker length and watching videos of Akram and Akhtar. The mother wasn't too amused, and didn’t enroll him in a coaching academy. In hindsight, it benefited in preserving his action as it is, untouched and unstained by conventional cricketing wisdom, which could have mocked the unorthodoxy of the elbow hyperextension and the injury proneness of the action.
Eventually, Bumrah would join an academy and get picked for Gujarat age-group teams. The pace and accuracy would see him graduate to the senior level. Mumbai Indians’ coach John Wright chanced upon the youngster in a T20 match in Ahmedabad, and immediately prompted the club to acquire the youngster. What Wright saw in him was not just the quirkiness of the action, but the impeccable accuracy of his yorkers, the deceptive bouncer at his disposal and pure pace, which for Indian bowlers, is a rare commodity. Bumrah was fortunate that he burst forth in the IPL milieu, at a time when non-conformity was celebrated than ridiculed.

This also shows how coaching perceptions have changed over the years, when unorthodoxy isn't scoffed at or dismantled. Later, when joining the National Cricket Academy, he had an equally understanding coach, Bharat Arun, the bowling coach of Team India. "I'd never seen such an action before, but I realised it was stupid to try and change it. I felt Bumrah was able to generate a lot of pace with his action, but it put a lot of strain on his body. It was a challenge and we had discussions with the physios and trainers. We came to the conclusion that we need to work on him to become extremely strong to be able to sustain his bowling," he explained.

Like Arun, former Australia pacer Glenn McGrath took him as he is during his time at the MRF pace foundation: "There's no need to change something that's working superbly. A bowler has to feel comfortable with what he's doing, so massive changes will turn counterproductive. There's no need for it. Lot of things were working for him, like his short run-up, whippy action. A few minor technical tweaks were all it required. And a bit of getting him stronger."

Not that Bumrah was a clumsy athlete, but his ball-propulsion methods require a stable body that doesn't crack or wear. Once he realised the action-sustainability-longevity correlation, he shed endless hours of sweat that made even Kohli envious of him. "He works as hard as anybody I have seen in the gym. He's a very tough guy." Recently, the usually bashful Bumrah flaunted his striped abs on Instagram.

Better fitness also means that he is staving off injuries and bowling fearlessly, which conversely should give batsmen restless nights. Facing him, batsmen of a previous generation would liken with facing Muralitharan. Bumrah is Muralitharan in a pacer's guise, without the bulging Simpson-like eyes and facial contortions. Ever-smiling yet thrillingly fearsome.

******

"Bumrah has nothing to improve, he came fully improved ," observed Ishant Sharma before the Melbourne Test. What he presumably implied was that Bumrah was a ready-made bowler the moment he arrived in the Tests arena. His first year in Test cricket is testimony - no other Indian pacer has picked as many wickets as Bumrah's 48 in a single calendar year. Fewer still have contributed to match-winning causes as Bumrah in an entire career. In India's four overseas Test wins last year, he picked 29 wickets at 14.96.

As much as the numbers, it's the maturity he has exuded in these months that made legendary bowlers earmark him for greatness. When he stands at the top of his run-up with eyes fixed on the pitch, it's as if he's taking a mental picture of forcing the ball around an obstacle mid-pitch.

He then feeds his brain with the inputs, then processes it and judges the perfect length. Some bowlers take an eternity to gauge this, but some like Bumrah comprehend those variables in a few seconds. It's sheer intuition.

"The way he has varied his length, line and speed according to the nature of the pitch has been terrific. It's what all great fast bowlers do, adjust themselves to the conditions," says McGrath.

In the last 12 months, he has bowled in different conditions, on bouncy surfaces in South Africa, on swinging tracks in England and sluggish decks in Australia. Everywhere he transitioned seamlessly, of course there were times when he erred, like in Cape Town where he started off like a loose cannon, feeding batsmen too many boundary balls. But he quickly rectified his lengths.

"He's a quick learner too. A couple of years ago, we were working on his out-swinger and a few alterations had to be made on his wrist position. He was holding the ball a little tightly, and I told him to make the grip a little loose. The next day, he was bowling with the new grip and getting the ball to move away from left-handers," says his former teammate RP Singh.

All of which - the mastery of craft, the adaptability to perse conditions and the commitment to learn new skills and polish his existing ones, besides the quirkiness -make him a captain's dream. The talk of drafting him into long-form cricket began a couple of months before the South Africa series. The opinions then differed - some typecast him as a shorter-version bowler, others opined he ought to spend more time in domestic cricket. They were myopic in not seeing beyond his hyperextended elbow.

What actually caught Kohli's eye was not his variety, but energy levels. "He was training like he wanted to play Test cricket, he was that obsessed about his fitness levels and his work ethic. So we discussed before South Africa that if we put him as a surprise package he could be lethal if he gets his lines and lengths right. The mindset he has is what separates him from anyone else in the world right now."

Twelve months on, he needn't repent his decision. For Bumrah has conquered the world and transcended his quirkiness.

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