Days before the second Test of the ongoing Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Melbourne, a realisation must have dawned on Indian cricket followers. Jasprit Bumrah is now a leader in this Indian Test side.

After injuries to Ishant Sharma (pre-tour) and Mohammed Shami (first Test), Umesh Yadav was the senior-most fit fast bowler available on tour. It would be unfair on Yadav to say this was a distressing thought. But it is also a fair pointer that India’s bowling prowess overseas – especially in the last couple years – has not been built on his shoulders.

Yadav did not feature in India’s last series in South Africa (2018), even when they picked four pacers in the third Test at Johannesburg. He played only one out of five Tests in England (also 2018), in the absence of an injured Bumrah. He played at Perth on the subsequent tour of Australia (2018-’19) as India yet again fielded four pacers, and the again in Christchurch a year later (versus New Zealand in 2020) with Ishant missing due to injury.

Overall, as the Indian bowling attack has gone from strength to strength and created records overseas, Yadav’s contribution to this form has been paltry. It comes as no surprise then that Indian cricket has already turned to someone else to lead the attack. And there are no prizes for guessing his name.

The rise of Bumrah

Two years ago, as India took a series’ lead in Melbourne, Bumrah made headlines with match-winning figures of 9/86. That bowling performance bookended a perfect initiation into Test cricket for the pacer – from Cape Town to MCG, different conditions from South Africa to England to Australia, tiding over injuries, Bumrah picked up 48 wickets in nine Tests at 21.02. It was the fourth-highest return in Test cricket that year.

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Those returns haven’t diminished in these last 24 months, albeit Bumrah having played fewer Tests than most pacers going around. In six matches against West Indies, New Zealand and now halfway through the Test series in Australia, he has picked up 27 wickets at an average of 18.48. In fact, Bumrah’s average is among the very best for bowlers who have played on Australian shores, eclipsing the likes of Malcolm Marshall (West Indies) and Dale Steyn (South Africa).

Away bowlers with best Test avg in Australia

Player Span Inns Wkts BBI Ave Econ SR
1887-1892 12 41 8/35 11.65 1.60 43.4
1882-1887 16 33 6/28 15.42 1.99 46.3
1881-1887 23 50 7/28 16.42 2.08 47.2
1973-1987 21 77 9/52 17.83 2.44 43.8
2018-2020 12 29 6/33 18.82 2.39 47.2
Min 20 wickets in Australia (Courtesy ESPNCricinfo)

“I don’t look at stats and put unnecessary pressure on myself. I just look to do the basics,” said Bumrah after Australia’s first innings in the MCG Test. It was a well-rehearsed comment, one you would often hear in Indian cricket’s media conferences. Yet, there was inherent innocence in the manner Bumrah spoke. His usual shy smile, an unperturbed demeanour and matter-of-fact emotion – this wasn’t a brushing away of the question.

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Despite his unprecedented success at the international level, including its rigours and constant spotlight, Bumrah has retained a boyish charm. It is not to do with his persona as much as his bowling – perhaps firstly stemming from the fact that his bowling action is inimitable. Add to it, there have been no changes pushed through as he bowls more and more on the international circuit. That originality and individuality has been retained. It is almost pure, and joyful, in the sense Bumrah has been shielded from the forced intricacies professional cricket can impress upon you.

There is another manner in which Bumrah is unique. He hasn’t played Test cricket at home yet, and all his 16 matches have been overseas.

Jasprit Bumrah's Test career summary

Matches Inns Wickets Avg. SR
in Australia 6 12 29 18.82 47.2
in England 3 6 14 25.92 57.1
in New Zealand 2 4 6 31.66 61.6
in South Africa 3 6 14 25.21 48.0
in West Indies 2 4 13 9.23 22.6
Courtesy ESPNCricinfo

The argument can be made that his style of bowling – hitting the deck, exploiting the bounce whilst also drawing movement off the surface – is more suited to foreign pitches. On slower, dustier wickets in India, wherein four bowlers – including Ashwin Ravichandran and Ravindra Jadeja – usually do the trick, Bumrah is not yet imperative for India.

Therein, Test matches at home could be a golden opportunity to shield him from excessive cricket and provide that iota of rest in an otherwise jam-packed schedule. That logic however, could soon be out-dated, and the MCG Test showed just why. Because, Bumrah’s responsibilities have evolved.

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The Boxing Day Test offered a slight peek into Indian cricket’s future, both in batting and bowling. While Shubman Gill impressed with the bat, Mohammad Siraj did similarly with the ball. Through the game, Siraj got words of encouragement – either from Ashwin, or from Bumrah. Commentators, both Australian and Indian, talked up this facet of talking to younger bowlers, especially in the manner Bumrah (who is still relatively young in his own Test career) spoke to the debutant pacer. During his first spell post-lunch on day one, there were nerves to be seen, but Siraj soon settled down into a rhythm.

The other facet comes across in hunt for wickets. In search of a breakthrough, particularly in the second innings, Ajinkya Rahane was judicious in his use of Bumrah. On day four, he used the pacer in a short burst to figure out what was on offer as the ball was 70-plus overs old. Seeing as the batsmen were comfortable against pace in that short spell, Rahane withheld Bumrah and then instantly brought him back when the second new ball was taken.

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And voila, the pacer provided for Pat Cummins’ dismissal. Pace, bounce, hint of movement, sharp rising delivery to attack the lower order batsman, and a wicket – where would India be without Bumrah?

In full flight, that proverbial tail up, he is a vision to behold, and soon the team management might be forced to replicate this situation at home. After all, how long can you hold him back, in search of crucial World Test Championship points against England? To find balance in Bumrah’s Test commitments with other formats, will be the main challenge in such a scenario.

Nevertheless, a captain going for his lead pacer to provide breakthroughs isn’t a new tactic. And yet, the underlying point is in the change of personnel, even if it is an enforced one. Throughout India’s last overseas cycle, this role was preserved for Shami. In his absence, it isn’t really a surprise that Bumrah is the leader of India’s bowling attack in the now-and-present, and with Siraj-Navdeep Saini, forms the bedrock of their Test attack for the next few years.