With the 2019 Cricket World Cup drawing closer, The Field will take a look at a significant talking points about how the squad is shaping up after specific milestones. With white-ball cricket for India coming to a close in 2018, in the fourth part of the series, the focus is on India’s pacers. Read parts one, two and three here, here and here.

Beginning on their preparations for the big tournament in 2019, the Indian team management – including selectors – knew they could choose to ignore experimentation on at least four, if not five points.

First, the top-order – with Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli – was set.

Second, their mind was set on leg-spin – R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were completely sidelined, and Yuzvendra Chahal as well as Kuldeep Yadav were granted ample opportunities to make their mark on world cricket.

Third, Hardik Pandya was the sure-shot all-rounder.

And fourth, MS Dhoni was an automatic keeper-batsman choice. That last bit is now increasingly becoming ponderous as the senior statesman is starting to struggle with his timing, thus forcing the need to invest in second-choice options (read Dinesh Karthik and Rishabh Pant) in whatever preparatory time remains.

Fifth, and one is starting to stretch the Indian think-tank’s comfort zone now, the Men in Blue had a ready new-ball plan. Of all the pointers and must-dos emanating from the 2017 Champions Trophy conclusions, this was an obvious one. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah – hand them those white balls and squeeze the opposition out.

This has been the go-to plan since India lost to Pakistan, and it has worked to quite an extent. They have won 30 out of 41 ODIs thereafter, wherein Kumar picked up 31 wickets in as many matches, while Bumrah took 52 wickets in 28 matches. That their partnership has blossomed would be an understatement – their individual career graphs have soared with both averaging better with the ball in this time-period than throughout their entire careers.

Even so, this is but an unfair summary of their importance to India’s 2019 World Cup ambitions.

The significance of Bhuvi

In August 2017, Ashwin and Jadeja disappeared from ODIs on the tour of Sri Lanka. It led to a vexing question – what about the lower-middle order? As good (or bad in the Champions Trophy) as Ashwin-Jadeja were with the ball, they are quite handy batsmen. Runs lower down the order, irrespective of format, are vital and this is cricket’s reality today.

Yet, it doesn’t tell you how India shaped their 50-over strategy around Ashwin-Jadeja’s batting prowess. In the build-up to the 2015 ODI World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, then-skipper MS Dhoni moved to the three-pacers-plus-two-spinners formula, with six full-time batsmen. Despite his search, there was no proper all-rounder in sight (no, Stuart Binny doesn’t count!). And it can only be imagined that one day, Dhoni – in his inimitable style – simply shrugged and said to himself that Ashwin-Jadeja will have to do that job.

You can count their batting exploits on your fingers – a swashbuckling partnership during a tied Auckland ODI against New Zealand in February 2014 is the first thought that comes to mind. Then, there are the numbers.

From December 2013 until the 2015 World Cup, in 22 innings (30 matches), Jadeja scored 486 runs at average 37.38 (higher than career average 30.96) and strike-rate 104.06 (higher than career strike-rate 85.10). In the same interim, in 18 innings (29 matches), Ashwin scored 225 of his 675 ODI runs (33.33 percent) at average 18.75 (higher than career average 16.07) and strike-rate 93.36 (higher than career strike-rate 86.98).

These are valuable runs, whichever way you look at it, and so the question needs to be asked here again – how do you bridge this gap in the lower-order?

For all their high-profile leg-spin, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav aren’t the answer, and it would be unfair to expect the same. Instead, the team management looked at Bhuvneshwar Kumar. There has always been an underlying tag of ‘all-rounder’ about him – so, why not?

In the second ODI against Sri Lanka at Pallekele (August 2017), the all-rounder in Kumar came to the fore. India faltered at 131-7 in a 232-run chase, when he came together with MS Dhoni and stroked his way to a maiden half-century, finishing the game for his side with an unbeaten 100-run partnership.

“My batting isn’t suited to ODI cricket,” said Kumar after that knock. “I am not someone who can hit sixes at will. So, MS told me to play my natural game and all I did was stick around.”

At one point, closer to the finish line, he did open up and played attacking strokes, perhaps in knowledge that Dhoni was still there. His words bring about the obvious conclusion then – Kumar is in the Ashwin mould when it comes to lower-order batting. He won’t get you the big hits but he will stay there and play the situation. At times, that is all you need.

It is also about confidence – never mind the misgivings about coach Ravi Shastri, a hallmark of his management style is bringing up this trait in players. Kumar tasted blood in scoring those vital runs in Lanka, and has since followed up with crucial knocks against varying opposition in different but similarly tough situations – 32* against Australia in Chennai (2017) after India were reduced to 87/5, 26 against New Zealand at Mumbai (2017) to finish the innings with a flourish, 21 against England at Leeds (2018) to help put up a 256-run total with lower-order runs after India were reduced to 194/6, and 21 against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup final whilst giving company to half-fit Kedar Jadhav and seeing his side home in a tense chase.

Since that Lanka tour, Kumar averages 29 in 12 innings (28 ODIs), a staggering difference from his career-average of 14.66. 232 out of his 440 ODI runs have come in this time period, hinting at a growing comfort with this significant-but-underplayed ‘second all-rounder’ role for the World Cup.

Of course, there is Kumar’s ability to move both the old and new ball, but on account of England hosting the tournament, his place as a primary pacer is a foregone conclusion.

The Bumrah ascendancy

That day in Pallekele, when Kumar hit that match-winning maiden half-century, Jasprit Bumrah had taken 4/43 to restrict Sri Lanka to 236/8. Three days later, at the same ground, he took his maiden ODI five-wicket haul (5/27) as India wrapped up the series 3-0. Just like that, in deeply contrasting ways, the new-ball bowlers for the 2019 ODI World Cup had been confirmed.

As aforementioned, this had been the go-to ploy for Kohli ever since the Champions Trophy. Even so, its evolution had been slow and not automatic – India had been pushed to find an optimal solution to their attack’s balance woes after losing to Sri Lanka at the Oval despite scoring 321/6. By some chance, or coincidence, or both, the Kumar-Bumrah combination is what they had arrived at.

Turn back the pages. That Lanka game was the last where R Ashwin didn’t play. The lone spinner strategy hadn’t worked, and for the next must-win game against South Africa, Kohli was forced to drop a pacer. Umesh Yadav had been sharing new-ball duties with Kumar so far, but now it was Bumrah’s turn. Barring a no-ball in the final against Pakistan that allowed Fakhar Zaman to score a match-winning hundred, this new strategy worked – well, almost.

Two months later, sitting in the same press conference room where Kumar had spoken about his batting exploits, Bumrah spoke about his relatively newfound role – opening the bowling in ODIs.

“With so much technology coming into cricket nowadays, people start to analyse and if you only have one or two tricks, batsmen will start lining you up,” he said. “So you have to keep evolving and adapting according to situations because if you are just a one-trick pony, it won’t work for a long period of time.”

The analysis bit is true. During the 2018 IPL, as Star Sports changed the way this T20 extravaganza was televised, the onus was on making analytical points. During one such passage of play, former New Zealand pacer Simon Doull spoke about the change of release point in Bumrah’s action. He pointed out that since the pacer was releasing the ball a little earlier and, more importantly, wider than he had done in the 2017 IPL.

Why? Doull believed Bumrah did it to “align his bowling action to Test cricket and thereby making it work across all formats”. Four months ago, he had debuted against South Africa at Cape Town and found instant success. But what worked against the Proteas and on their seaming wickets perhaps wouldn’t in England. Or simply put, Bumrah didn’t want to become too predictable now that he was bowling a lot more at international level across all three formats.

How did it impact Bumrah’s performance in the IPL? In 2017 IPL, he picked up 20 wickets in 16 matches at average 22 and economy 7.41. In 2018 IPL, he picked up 17 wickets in 14 matches at average 21.88 and economy 6.88.

The figures will tell you how Bumrah assimilated this change in his bowling without any hiccups, but that’s not entirely true. Nine of those 17 wickets came in four matches at average 11.44, and thus in the other eight matches, Bumrah picked up only eight more wickets at 33.62.

How did this impact his international performances? From the 2017 Champions Trophy until his Test debut, Bumrah took 34 wickets in 20 matches at average 23.41. In 2018, since playing the Cape Town Test, he has picked up 22 wickets in 13 matches at average 16.63.

Look past the statistics, and this is a story of how Bumrah has adapted over a period of time to cater to team India’s needs as well as fulfil his aspirations of becoming an all-weather pacer. His Test performances in both South Africa and England qualify him as the most improved and attacking pacer India currently have in their arsenal. Heck, it can also be argued that he is also the best fast bowler across formats in world cricket at present.

The over-dependency

The stage was Malahide, on the outskirts of Dublin, where Ireland hosted India for the first time since 2007. The two-match T20I series was supposed to be apt preparation for the limited-overs’ leg of the ensuing England tour. It turned out to be anything but, as Bumrah injured his finger playing in the first match. Kumar would later pick up a back stress during the T20I series against England a week thereafter.

What was the need to play either of them against Ireland, you would want to ask? After all, they were just coming off an IPL season and were bowling in the nets. It has become a cause for concern in two ways. One, Kumar-Bumrah have played a major chunk of India’s limited-overs’ matches in the past two years, thus increasing their workload.

“They are thinking bowlers,” said Kohli in Brisbane recently, when asked why he can’t seem to look past this pace pairing. “They understand the situation and they get a gut feel of what the batsmen are looking to do before they go to bowl. And the ability to predict what is going to happen on each ball is what keeps them ahead of the batsmen most of the times.”

By playing Kumar-Bumrah repeatedly, other pacers have been denied a fair chance in their bid to be tested for the World Cup.

Sample this: Not counting Hardik Pandya, since June 2017, India have only used seven pacers in white-ball cricket.

It is a similar case in T20Is, which the Indian think-tank considers as a testing ground for the World Cup too.

In this massively unbalanced equation, the seventh pacer – Khaleel Ahmed – has been a tad lucky on account of his left-arm angle. Since his international debut in September 2018, he has played six ODIs and as many T20Is. Apart from Kumar-Bumrah, this is the longest run any pacer has enjoyed since the 2017 Champions Trophy.

“At times we have thought of giving others a go at the start of a series, but then felt the first few games are important,” said Kohli, explaining this discrepancy. “Then, if the opposition wins one or two games, you still have to rely on Kumar and Bumrah. Between now and the World Cup, it will be more difficult to give others chances because we want to play with our first eleven in as many games as possible.”

One way to read it is the team management’s measure of confidence in the abilities – and fitness – of Kumar and Bumrah. Read it the other way round, and worryingly enough, India don’t have a reliable second line of pace attack going to England next year.

Just before the Australian tour began, there were reports of a mooted suggestion that Kumar and Bumrah should be rested during IPL 2019. That idea reportedly has been shot down even before it took wings.

If you are an Indian cricket fan, it is time to start praying hard that neither Kumar nor Bumrah suffer from any major injury before July next year. Surely, a billion prayers will be sufficient.