‘Is this India’s best-ever pace attack?’

The question was doing the rounds in the lead-up to the fourth Test at Southampton.

There were many who felt the attack needed a few more stellar performances to stake claim to the title. At the end of Day 1, though, not much was left to be said. The attack led by Jasprit Bumrah produced one of the finest displays of swing bowling in a while. Bumrah and Ishant’s utilisation of the new ball was superb.

They delivered a masterclass in swing bowling. The ball swirled and dipped. The batsmen were on their toes through the opening hour. Rishabh Pant, keeping wickets, was in as much trouble as he attempted dives after dives in a bid to collect the swerving deliveries.

However, Bumrah largely maintained a disciplined line and length. Targeting the legs of the batsmen as he does with his stock delivery, Bumrah kept gnawing at the England openers before one of them wilted.

Not only did Bumrah get the ball to swing into the right-handers, He went a step ahead and got the ball to dart back into left-handed opening batsman Keaton Jennings, who was left stranded in front of the stumps and left for a duck not knowing which way the ball would move.

It was an incredible delivery, pitched on leg like most of his deliveries but came back in to surprise the batsman. The seam was pointing towards leg slip, an intentional variation after keeping the seem directed towards the slips on the previous deliveries. It all happened in the third over of the day.

The 24-year-old could have well picked up the wicket of England skipper Joe Root (4) after trapping him in front almost immediately. Unfortunately, he had overstepped.

Ishant, though, completed what Bumrah couldn’t. He trapped Root plumb in front with a big inswinger. England’s top-order was struggling to fend off the swing that the duo was producing.

The pair bowled fast, 80mph was a common sight on the speed-o-meter as they made most of the conditions. They were aided by some smart field placements by skipper Virat Kohli. Improved slip fielding meant there were no hiccups. Pant did grass a chance of Buttler but he can be accused considering the batsman could not go onto score big.

It was clear then that the English batsmen had no answer to the pointed queries posed by India’s frontline pacers. Ishant frustrated the batsmen with a nagging line in the corridor only to surprise the batsmen with the one that darts back in. Alastair Cook was on tenterhooks each time he faced the lanky pacer. He did not fall at the hands of Ishant but was successfully kept in check.

There were not many full deliveries. The duo seldom fell short. It was a mature performance from the duo who looked calm down

The sun was out when England began their innings. May be it was the sunshine that prompted the hosts to bat first after winning the toss. Bumrah and Ishant, though, had other ideas. They made the ball talk, spit and bite. England hardly ever scored over two runs an over in the first two sessions. As the sun hid behind the clouds, so did hopes of their revival.

At the end of the first hour England were reeling at 26/2 after 12 overs. It wasn’t the figures that mattered, it was the manner in which it happened. The batsmen were clueless and there was little doubt that they would feel the same after the breather.

Bumrah went onto finish with figures of 20-5-46-3, while Ishant notched up a tally of 16-6-26-2.

Planning ahead

After bagging a five-wicket haul in the previous Test, Bumrah had said that a lot of work had gone in figuring out ways to beat the Englishmen at their own game. There was always a possibility that India’s pacers would challenge the hosts, but it was never expected that they would dominate in such fashion.

England struggled through the day. India had lost the toss for the fourth straight time in this series. A par score would have been anywhere between 350-400. That their total of 246 all out seems competitive now is a testament to how dominant the India pacers were on the day.

Sam Curran’s fighting 78 in the lower-order did give England’s bowlers something to bowl at. But, the damage was done earlier. when Bumrah and Ishant bowled in tandem with the new ball. Ishant in fact bowled as many as six maidens in his 11-over spell in the morning session. He was disciplined throughout.

Bumrah, on the other hand, was aggressive. He got Jonny Bairstow to edge one to the keeper ahead of Lunch only to return in the latter stages to send back Stuart Broad who was threatening to stretch England’s total further with a late partnership with Curran.

Ishant, by contrast, picked up just two wickets but it was the pressure he exerted on the batsmen which kept India a few steps ahead of their opponents through the day.

Mohammed Shami and Hardik Pandya also played their part with wickets in the second session. England, in fact, seemed mentally frayed. The ball was moving around, but the wicket was hard and offered room for strokeplay. But, they batted tentatively always in fear of that extra swing which eventually brought an end to all their knocks.

Virat Kohli and the team management will be grinning after that display. All their bowlers were in fine form. That Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India’s swing bowling master, isn’t even part of the XI is testament to how well this bowling attack has evolved over the past few years.

India are chasing the impossible - to become only the second team to have come back from a 0-2 deficit to win the series. The odds are stacked against them. However, it is for certain that the team’s pace battery is shoring up the effort with a consistent show through the series.

It’s now up to the batsmen to complement the bowlers who have put them in a space where they can change the trend and might even go on to prove that they are the India’s best-ever pace attack.