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World Test Championship 2021/23

India miss Kohli the captain, but they miss Bumrah the bowler more

Sarah Waris by Sarah Waris
@swaris16 5 minute read

India seemed to lack ideas during the first innings of the WTC final against Australia, and they missed Jasprit Bumrah dearly, writes Sarah Waris.

As India’s shoulders drooped early on day one of the World Test Championship final, the eyes searched for Virat Kohli. Termed the magic captain, he would often whip up sorcery with a mere stare. But he was just the choreographer, plotting and designing dismissals along with the faster bowlers, the real artists in the show. And leading the pack was Jasprit Bumrah.

When the slingy-zingy Bumrah was given a maiden Test call-up in 2018, the questions were never-ending. Kohli, then Test skipper, had seemingly gone so overboard in his vision of becoming the best team in the world that he selected an ‘IPL product’ who had not played first-class cricket for a year before his debut at Newlands. Michael Holding dissed the move, and reporters termed it ‘desperate’. But the duo of Ravi Shastri and Kohli were unmoved. Head coach Shastri had already narrowed in on Bumrah as the quick who would lead them to the summits of their dreams in the format and decided to not reveal him, or their plans, ahead of the South Africa series.


Kohli “instantly decided” to give Bumrah his Test debut in the first match of the tour after watching him at the nets, and the rest is history, with the pacer playing a mammoth role in India’s ascension as they soon rose through the ranks from No.7 to world beaters with a series of impressive wins away from home.

His debut also began a period of yin and yang in Indian cricket. The bold, hand-gesturing-trumpet-blowing captain engineering the field for a group of fast bowlers who were unlike any other. An inconsistent Ishant Sharma, an injury-ridden Mohammed Shami and a wayward Umesh Yadav were backed to come good along with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who needed a hint of swing to excel on most days.

And there was Bumrah too. With a short run-up, he hopped in with an unorthodox action, generating pace smoothly. He effortlessly transferred weight from his right leg to the other at the last minute and was exceptional with his accuracy, speed and control. The new ball had movement and he got the older one to reverse. Combined with a lethal bouncer and yorker, he was a complete package. He probably did not believe how good he was, with an emoji-esque celebration after every wicket, raising his hands in surprise and wondering how he managed to beat the best batters.

In his debut year, Bumrah picked up 48 Test wickets in a stiff overseas cycle for the Indian team. He played all his games abroad, picking up a wicket in all but two of 18 innings. India won four games in 2018 – two against Australia and one each in England and South Africa – and Bumrah starred in all four matches, getting 29 wickets at an average of 14.96 with a strike rate of 33.9.

Undoubtedly India’s most successful Test captain, with 40 victories, Kohli’s real legacy lies in drumming up an envious overseas repertoire. He ended with 16 away wins in 36 games – five more than the next best, Sourav Ganguly. In SENA, Kohli conjured up seven wins in his career, with MS Dhoni and Mansur Pataudi leading India to three wins apiece.

Each win under Kohli had sparks of brilliance from the faster bowlers but the standout was undoubtedly Bumrah, who played all seven games that India won in SENA in that time. The right-arm seamer grabbed 41 wickets in the seven wins, 14 more than Mohammed Shami, who had 27 wickets. Bumrah also picked up a wicket every 40.1 balls – the best among all India bowlers with at least seven wickets in wins in SENA – at an average of 17.21. He also picked up three five-fors.

Bumrah vindicated his skipper and coach’s decision early in 2018 when he devoured the giants at Johannesburg – a win that also began the journey towards Mission World Domination. A few months later, at Nottingham, he got India back into the game with successive wickets of Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow. The moments of match-turning brilliance have been plenty, be it his slower yorker to send back Shaun Marsh on the last ball before lunch, termed by the Cricket Monthly as the ball of the century No.12. At Lord’s in 2021, Bumrah set up Ollie Robinson with an over-the-wicket off-cutter and his spell of 6-2-6-2 at the Kia Oval was drowned out by Shardul ‘Lord’ Thakur’s heroics. His spell turned the tide as India neared a series win. At Centurion, he was economical, giving 16 runs in 7.2 overs in the first innings, keeping the pressure going after India failed to make the most of their excellent start with the bat, making just above 300, and dismissed Dean Elgar with a terrific ball that seamed away in the very first over.

There were off days as well, and it directly affected India’s chances. In 14 SENA defeats under Kohli, Bumrah picked up 35 wickets at an average of 31.17 with a strike rate of 70.2. The only specialist bowler to fare worse was Umesh Yadav, with a strike rate of 71. The other senior quicks, Shami and Ishant, had strike rates of 55.9 and 57.3, respectively. Shami averaged 30.70, and Ishant averaged 26.36, but it hardly mattered in the final result as the indifferent form of Bumrah had a bigger impact. The better he did, the better India did with the rest of the bowling attack feeding off his energy. When he failed, India struggled, often irrespective of how the remaining bowlers did.

In wins in SENA under Kohli, only two batters played all seven games and averaged over 40 – Kohli himself and Cheteshwar Pujara. It highlights the limited role the batters played as India moved to a five-bowler theory. Trading big runs for bowling depth was a conscious decision, according to former batting coach Sanjay Bangar, and they could afford it because of the bowling strength they possessed. India only crossed 400 twice in 14 innings abroad in wins under Kohli and won thrice despite making 250 or fewer in the first innings – in Adelaide 2018, the Kia Oval in 2021 and Johannesburg, 2018. Bumrah had leading roles to play in all three instances.

On Wednesday, the Indian fans watched in horror as a number of decisions went awry and hashtags of ‘We Miss You Kohli’ were trending. They blindly believed he’d have done it differently. But a captain is as good as his team. Each successful skipper has had with him an equally formidable army during their reign but maneuvring them according to their strengths and weaknesses is what differentiates the greatest from the ordinary.

Kohli and Bumrah formed a memorable pair, with the latter living up to the initial trust the management had in him, and the former, in turn, planning the bowler’s workload management to perfection, keeping him fresh for sterner challenges and playing him rarely at home. Kohli lured you into his magic world, with captivating aggression as a leader, and you miss him when he’s no more at the helm and when India have off days, but he was merely orchestrating the entire show that had Bumrah as the real hero.

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