33 — that’s the number of Test matches Virat Kohli has led India in. That’s also the number of different playing elevens he has used in consecutive Tests. He is different from previous Indian captains, mixing things up at every opportunity, using the options on his bench and fielding a side as per conditions on offer and the opposition.
So, when India played their last two Tests in Delhi and Cape Town, it was obvious that Kohli wouldn’t go with the same combination. The usual debates cropped up — Shikhar Dhawan or KL Rahul? Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma or both? Hardik Pandya with four bowlers, or five outright bowlers? Even, four bowlers and six batsmen, no Pandya?
Unsurprisingly, the name ‘Jasprit Bumrah’ hardly entered these debates. Every Indian cricket fan plays super selector all the time, so ask yourself, did your team for this Cape Town Test include him, that too ahead of Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav? Amongst a billion-strong fandom, it is easy to assume that at least 90-95 per cent permutations and combinations didn’t have Bumrah.
From fans, to watching media, and to commentators — both Indian and South African, everyone was surprised when Kohli announced his playing eleven. Hell, even South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis was astounded that India had opted for a newbie in their very first overseas Test of this 2018-19 cycle.
“We didn’t think that Bumrah would have played,” said the Proteas’ skipper after taking a 1-0 lead in the series. “We know that he’s done really well in one-day cricket but we were preparing more for the other seamers because they’ve played a lot of Tests.”
For any team preparing to take on India, this is a justifiable thought process. Over the last four years, the Indian team management has invested heavily in the likes of Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. In almost every Test since Kohli took over, these are the four pacers in use, thanks to his penchant for rotation. It is not to say that others haven’t got a look in.
Shardul Thakur was part of the 2016 West Indies tour, but he didn’t get to play a game as the Indian skipper opted for his first-choice options. And for good reason, as this quartet covers every possible pitch condition on offer — collectively; they can swing the ball both ways, bowl reverse, generate awkward bounce, and even hold ends up. So what made Kohli pick Bumrah, someone who hasn’t played first-class cricket in over a year, ahead of his trusted pacers?
Oddly enough, Kohli didn’t explain in his post-match conference, choosing to talk about the batting-order instead. Knowing how this team management works, it is easy to assume though. Bumrah is an in-form bowler. Including him meant a novelty factor because not many know what to expect of him. Not to forget, he is much like Kumar in that he can swing the new ball in helpful conditions, whilst also getting the ball to skid off the surface. Throw in Newlands’ seam-friendly wicket, and in summation, you can almost see why he was an obvious choice for Kohli and Ravi Shastri.
This maiden Test for Bumrah, then, will go down as somewhat of a mixed bag. Mostly, it was a tale of two innings — in the first, of a nervy debutant lining up to bowl in a mighty-important match for his side, and in the second, of a calmer, thinking bowler who looked to use the conditions on offer to cause mayhem in a side that probably under-estimated him after the first spell.
It wasn’t surprising to see Bumrah only come in first-change on day one. He did get the ball to dart around, but his line was poor, conceivably because AB de Villiers’ attacking display unsettled the Indian bowling to quite an extent. Yet, there is no mistaking that Bumrah bowled too wide off the batsmen on a pitch that provided certified assistance to bowl into them. At one stage, he was conceding 4.5 runs an over. If this were limited-overs’ cricket on South African soil, this would have been exemplary bowling. However he was taken for runs when India needed to tightly hold one end together.
Kohli pointed out those extra 40-50 runs in the first innings is where India lost the game. It was during that phase when the Indian team could have done with someone like Ishant, who can atleast cuts down on the scoring rate nowadays with some consistent line and length. It further didn’t help Kohli that he couldn’t turn to the debutant, or Shami for that matter, when he needed wickets on day one.
To his credit, Bumrah (and Shami too) came into his own in the second innings. Thanks to a sweaty pitch, he could extract more bounce by banging the ball in, with additional seam movement especially coming into play against the right-handed batsmen. More importantly, he bowled closer to their bodies, thus not allowing the luxury of scoring too many runs. The delivery that got du Plessis caught behind summed up all of the aforementioned.
As far as learning on the job goes, Bumrah, who had looked like an ODI bowler in whites and out of his depth in the first innings, adapted within 48 hours and looked the part when handed the ball immediately in the second innings on day four. Yet, at what turned out to be the most crucial phase of the first Test, Bumrah just didn’t look the part of a seasoned Test bowler. Therefore, for good or bad, the disappointing 72-run loss in a low-chase will force the team management to relook at their selection, including Bumrah’s spot.
Trailing 1-0, India face a must-win Test in Centurion. There is a fine line between a brave selection and too much adventurism. While his bowlers were able to take 20 wickets at Newlands, the question must arise — does Kohli want to go into a possible series-decider with a one-match old pacer or will he choose to rely on experience instead?