In April 2013, he bowled in front of a national audience for the first time, plucked out from domestic cricket and inducted into Mumbai Indians’ line-up thanks to John Wright’s eagle eye. Three of his first four balls were dispatched to the boundary. Off the fifth, he got Virat Kohli lbw, and Kohli would later presciently say, “He could be a very exciting prospect” even though he wasn’t enthused with the decision.
A year later, Jasprit Bumrah was fairly well established as a good prospect in the IPL and in domestic cricket at least, though not yet in the international scheme of things. Mumbai Indians were playing Royal Challengers Bangalore once again, and Bumrah dismissed AB de Villiers. He then did the cricketing equivalent of spitting in a shrine by mouthing off at the departing batsman and giving him a properly ticked off send-off. An expletive ridden rant. At AB de Villiers of all people.
Ask him about it now and Bumrah will give a rueful shake of the head. “Yaaa… I know. I can’t explain it. It happened so long ago but some of my teammates still make fun of me for that!” The laughter that reaches the eyes tells you that the incident is not only firmly in the past but also unlikely to be repeated. Back in 2014, Bumrah was an unknown quantity and you might have thought this is the way he is. But speak to him now and it’s almost as if you are listening to how MS Dhoni might have sounded like if he had turned out a bowler. There is a calm, there is a quiet acknowledgment of his skills, and there is even the refuge in the cliché. Mostly though, there is the presence on the field when he’s operating at his chosen skill – unconventional method, plenty of smarts, even more results. He has added to his repertoire too, from the time he burst on the scene. The yorker remains a strong ally, but there are changes of pace, of angle, and evidence of planning in out-thinking batsmen.
In 2015-16, you knew that Bumrah was on the fringes of national selection, and when India travelled to Australia at the start of the year for a limited-overs series, he found a spot in the Twenty20 International side. That happened only because Mohammed Shami had withdrawn with injury, but as it turned out, Bumrah’s first steps in international cricket were still to hold some surprise. He hadn’t been named in the One-Day International squad, but at the toss before the fifth and final ODI in Sydney, the team sheet had Bumrah’s name on it.
Another fast bowler had been injured, and Bumrah flew in early. He was to be the back-up, he ended up being India’s best bowler in the match. It’s strange how fate works. The bowler who was injured was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, with whom Bumrah has now formed what could be India’s best-ever new-ball pairing in limited-overs. Had Bhuvneshwar been fit, maybe Bumrah wouldn’t have had a debut, wouldn’t have so impressed that he was an automatic selection in the T20I side, wouldn’t have made someone like Dhoni, normally reticent with words, gush about how the young Gujarat pacer was “the find of the tour”.
And even when you remind him of that praise, there is what I call the ‘Dhoni character’, for lack of a better word. Bumrah doesn’t deflect praise or seem unable to handle it, but he’s his own man. “I was very happy, my captain had so much confidence in me. It’s a great honour. But what I try to do is I try not to focus on things that are being said.”
And then later, “I know you get inspired by a lot of bowlers, I also got inspired. Wasim Akram was there, Mitchell Johnson, Brett Lee – these three were my favourites. I used to try to copy them. Eventually I realised, they are greats and there can only be one of them. I tried to then bring my stuff and what I’m good at. So I get inspired, but I know what I can do. I don’t try to copy them or be like them.”
With an international spot secured in early 2016, Bumrah would show a year later that those who had him pigeon-holed as a ‘white-ball’ bowler were way off the mark. In Gujarat’s triumphant run to a much cherished maiden Ranji Trophy title in 2016-17, Bumrah was the bowling hero. It began in the league stages, in possibly Gujarat’s most important match. It was against Mumbai, who had been Gujarat’s bogey team, like they had been for many others. In a first-innings shoot-out for the lead, it was Bumrah’s 6 for 71 that ensured Mumbai were stopped at 422, 15 runs short of Gujarat. He would take just 24 wickets in the competition, not always being available due to international commitments, including missing the final. But of those 24 wickets, six came in the league match against Mumbai, five came in the quarterfinal when Odisha were bowled out for 199 even though Gujarat had got only 263, and six more came in the semifinal when an in-form Jharkhand were blown away for 111 after being set a gettable 235 in the fourth innings.
His exploits with the red ball have meant that several worthies have thought Bumrah deserves a spot in India’s Test team too, especially for the away tours to South Africa, England and Australia. It would have been nice if the selectors had eased him into the longest format against Sri Lanka in the coming home series, because there is no doubt in my mind that he is someone India should not leave behind when the long away leg starts. Bumrah is no longer a rookie, and shouldn’t take too much time to adjust to Test cricket if given a chance, but that adjustment could only have been made easier if he had a couple of Tests against Sri Lanka first.
Be that as it may, it’s been a fairly remarkable journey from a complete unknown in 2013 to being considered among the world’s best limited-overs bowlers and knocking on the doors of Test selection. His latest Man of the Match and Man of the Series turn in the T20Is against New Zealand was merely the latest step in demonstrating to the world how potent a bowler Bumrah can be.
The journey has seen Bumrah grow on and off the field, and though he’s not likely to mouth off at batsmen now, the fast bowler’s snarl won’t disappear completely. Just ask his Gujarat teammates. The batsmen all attest to being prepared for a hostile bouncer if they have the audacity to play some good shots off Bumrah in the nets. “No, no… they have hyped this story a bit, because I don’t do that everytime,” protests a laughing Bumrah. A pause. “Okay sometimes I do it. In the end I’m a fast bowler and nobody likes to get hit, isn’t it?” Another pause. “Okay yes, it happens. If they’ve hit a good shot, the next ball could be a bouncer, yes!”
Like he says, Bumrah is a fast bowler in the end. And one who India might well want to consider in all formats.