If Shami wouldn’t get you, Bumrah will

If Shami wouldn’t get you, Bumrah will

A compelling case could be made of the phalanx of India’s bowlers as the most lethal in the world now. The year began with them—even without Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami—out-bowling their Australian counterparts Down Under, before they put to shade England’s group, and by the end of this year, they out-bowled South Africa’s pace pack at their fortress. If their coming of age have been unfolding in the last few years, this year has been their tour de force, when they made a resounding statement that, in their current form, they are the most dangerous in the world.

The natural culmination is series wins abroad. Having conquered Australia, twice in their last two expeditions, snatched a 2-1 lead in England, they are on the edge of wrapping up the first of the three Tests against South at Centurion. Defending 305, South Africa are already 94/4, their only hope of salvaging something from the match resting on the robust shoulders of captain Dean Elgar and rain and thunderstorm, which is forecast on the fifth day.

But on day four, the Indian seamers stole all the thunder with thunderous spells, full of sound and fury. But for Elgar’s stoic resistance and copious fortune, the bowlers would have been enjoying a well-earned rest in their hotel-room. It was a luckless day for them—the devious cracks slumbered as the day progressed, an effect perhaps of the heavy roller South Africa used, they beat the batsmen on numerous instances, edges fell short of fielders or eluded—yet they plugged on relentlessly.

It was their relentlessness—as much as their other vaunted skills and gifts—that sparkled brighter than the bright sun. Bumrah embodied that in the day-ending spell of precision and aggression. It’s usually the time fast bowlers are fatigued and forlorn, when cramps creep into their fiery souls. But Bumrah galloped in with the fresh legs of a thoroughbred and produced a furious two-wicket spell that restored India’s ascendancy in the match.

The resilient Rassie van der Dussen was his first wicket, which came out of nowhere and emblazoned Bumrah’s match-altering knack. He and Elgar had hung around for 22 overs and seemed to take the hosts to stumps without further damage. But then came a bolter from nowhere, one that, in the context of the game, could be compared to the Shaun Marsh curveball at MCG or the wicked half-volley (yes, he can even paint a half-volley wicked) that burst through Ollie Pope’s defence and morale at Oval. From length, the Dussen ball spat and slithered back to blast the off-stump. So exaggerated was the movement that it stupefied him, who had shouldered arms thinking it would travel harmlessly past the off-stump. Bumrah might have felt sorry for Dussen’s innocence.

His uncanny knack to seize moments and open up games is a rare gift his captain Virat Kohli could always lean on. Later, he unfurled a devilish yorker on the last over of the day that would have uprooted the stumps of a better batsman than Keshav Maharaj, a nightwatchman albeit one with a Test hundred to his name. And even on a luckless day, he could find his scrap of fortune.

The trouble for South Africa, as it had been for Australia and England this year, is that it’s not a matter of staving off Bumrah alone. If Bumrah is neutered, there is Mohammed Shami, if Shami endures a bad spell, there is Mohammed Siraj. If all three have a collective off-day, which happens rarely, there is Shardul Thakur and a sparsely-used off-spinner who has a mere 427 wickets to his credit.

The five-wicket-hero in the first innings, Shami, was woefully unfortunate to not have added another scalp to his bounty after he prised out Aiden Markram. He had Elgar hopping, stabbing and prodding uncertainly, but a wicket eluded. But just when Elgar and Keegan Petersen somehow survived a torrid examination of their technique and mental strength, strode in Siraj, who calls upon a different set of challenges. Of the front-line trio, he is the most comfortable with the fuller length, harnessing the gift to swing the ball both ways.

Their duel was enthralling. The spry Indian seamer probed the fifth-stump line, alternating between good and full length, to woo an edge. But the South African, with a compact and tidy technique, besides a sparkling clarity of mind not only repelled difficult balls but also punished whenever the bowlers erred on the fuller side. He pulled out smooth drives and languorous punches off the back-foot, displaying his immense potential and comfort at this level.

But Siraj was no quitter–he bowled so spiritedly despite luck not rewarding his labour. He relentlessly strove for the one ball that could sow doubts in Petersen’s mind. The swerving nip-backer from the fourth stump. He was getting the shape and angle, but not any alarming late movement. Finally, he conjured one and struck him on the knee-roll, which though the umpire deemed was not out, and the DRS left it as umpire’s call, much to the indignation of Siraj and the fielders. But Siraj no doubt had delivered a psychological blow, and it was inevitable that Petersen poked at an away-swinger, now that he was suspicious of the nip-backer and thus no longer assured of leaving the ball. He fell for the bluff, even though he could have played the ball better, but instead ended up pushing at the ball from the crease. It was not a ball propelled not with speed and movement, but with some indefinable extra ingredient. Extra heat, extra extra will. Like Bumrah, he has the ability to make things happen when nothing seems to happen.

Against as penetrative an attack as this, across grounds and conditions, there is no time to flinch. Quinton de Kock would confess. After blunting Shami and Siraj in the first innings, he relaxed when Thakur trundled in, only to drag the ball onto the stumps. So rounded they are that even a 100-Test veteran like Ishant Sharma could not break into the first-eleven.

And more worryingly for batsmen, their best could yet to be. Bumrah has just completed 25 Tests, Siraj is just a year into Test cricket, and Shami has just about cracked the consistency code. They could conspire a fast-bowling dynasty like the West Indies pace-pack of the yore. And Elgar and Co have a mountain to climb against India’s redoubtable group of pacers, if they are to guard fortress Centurion.

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