One of the key questions facing Virat Kohli at this point pertains to utilising the 50 overs, particularly with Hardik Pandya not bowling his complete quota on most occasions. The team management is slowly building him for this purpose, asking Kedar Jadhav to chip in with a few overs. Of course, when Pandya opens the bowling, there is a greater chance that he will go on to complete his share.
There is great temptation for Kohli to do this, and during this five-match ODI series in Sri Lanka, the Indian skipper has admitted to an ease in overs’ distribution if and when Pandya is used as a new-ball bowler who can move the ball and generate additional bounce.
“Being the fifth bowler in the team, we can get four-five overs out of him in the first 10 with the swinging ball. It allows us to use Jasprit Bumrah as first change,” Kohli had said ahead of the second ODI in Pallekele.
Oddly enough, Bumrah took the new ball ahead of Pandya in the next three matches. It was only in the last ODI that he bowled first-change again after Dambulla, but Pandya didn’t even play in the fifth match on Sunday. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shardul Thakur instead shared the new ball.
There are two ways to look at it. One, of course, is about Pandya and his slow progress in becoming a reliable ODI bowler. The other has to do with Bumrah’s rise in the past year or so, and his partnership with Bhuvneshwar when sharing the new ball.
It is quite a recent tactic though, mostly forced by the team’s quest to find a balanced bowling attack in the Champions Trophy.
Ravichandran Ashwin didn’t play the first two matches, and it didn’t work as Ravindra Jadeja was carted for runs by Sri Lanka at the Oval. To bring in the extra spinner, one of the three full-time pacers (Umesh Yadav) had to be dropped, with Bumrah and Pandya asked to share additional responsibilities. It has brought a quantum shift in India’s thinking with the new ball.
Let it be said here that Bumrah has opened the bowling in the past. But his underlining role in the attack is first-change, and then returning around the 34th or 35th over to squeeze the scoring rate before the last 10 overs. The young pacer has perfected the art of bowling yorkers and bringing out his variations at these crucial junctures. But he hasn’t been satisfied doing this alone.
“If you keep doing only one thing, you are identified as a one-dimensional bowler and will get sorted out very quickly in international cricket. The key is to keep doing new things so that the opposition is always guessing. I like to work on my variations and I don’t mind the new ball challenge. I will bowl wherever the team wants me to bowl,” said Bumrah after picking 5-27 in the third ODI.
There is an added dimension to Bumrah’s bowling. Known well for the accuracy of his fuller deliveries, he now has added a length delivery to his arsenal, one that just shoots off the surface and moves away from the bat, whether against a right or left-handed batsman. He only uses it sparingly though, mostly to surprise the batsmen, but it has got him three wickets in the last two games against Sri Lanka.
This newfound ability of moving the ball both ways makes Bumrah an ideal foil for Bhuvneshwar at the top of the bowling attack. It is important to reckon here that the team management is only looking at the 2019 World Cup, when it comes to the ODI format, and any changes in strategy or tactics all pertain to the same goal. The Champions Trophy is a keen pointer about the Bhuvneshwar-Bumrah pairing in that sense.
Bhuvneshwar is a shoe-in whenever India plays in English conditions, irrespective of the format. In the Champions Trophy, as well as in ODIs that have followed, he has shown an increased control of the white ball and cut down on runs in the initial overs. While Bhuvneshwar has improved his fitness and thus added to his pace, the need for greater control has been necessitated by the heavy batsmen-favouring conditions endured in the Champions Trophy.
If we look at the ODIs he has played this year, Bhuvneshwar has conceded runs at 4.52 runs per over in 12 matches as compared to his career-economy of 4.88 in 71 matches. It might seem marginal on paper, but the impact of this change is reflected in his average coming down to 28.14 in the last 12 matches as compared to 37.48 overall. Cynics of course will argue that he has only bowled against West Indies and Sri Lanka in this interim, but you can only play the opposition you have been pitted against.
There is no doubt that sterner tests await this new-ball pairing of Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah when Australia and New Zealand come calling shortly. Additionally, the success of their pairing is also dependent on India’s need for a third pacer overseas, and whether Pandya can provide that element with complete 10-over spells.
That however is a debate for another day. For now, the team management can be pleased with the groundwork done since June. Ticking the new-ball pairing for the near future is one less headache.