No Bumrah & Shami, but Bhuvneshwar leads effective short-ball barrage

As Babar Azam walked off, after he was rushed into a pull shot off Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Hardik Pandya galloped from mid-on, furiously wagging his index finger, implying that he masterminded the wicket, that it was his suggestion to bounce out the masterful Pakistan captain. Bhuvneshwar, unused to wild celebrations, nodded his head in approval.

Babar’s was not the only wicket the short ball from the Indian quartet was to consume as the innings unfolded. The short-pitched balls were to be the kryptonite of the top-five batsmen. Shortly after Babar departed, Fakhar Zaman lashed his bat at a wide short ball off Avesh Khan, only for the extra bounce to defeat his purpose. Then Pandya inflicted triple blows off his short balls to eject Iftikhar Ahmed, Khushdil Shah and Mohammad Rizwan and crush the backbone of the Pakistan batting line-up. Each wicket was wildly celebrated by the Indian supporters, the bowler’s name chanted like a divine mantra.

Less than 10 months ago had India’s bowlers failed to prise out a single Pakistan wicket on a Sunday night of utter embarrassment. This night, they had plucked all 10, and fittingly all by their pace quartet of Bhuvneshwar, Avesh, Hardik and Arshdeep Singh. Before the match, all the chatter was about how India would cope with the absence of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, arguably the most devastating cross-format new-ball pair for India ever. And at their peak, two of the finest in the world, though they could not bargain a single Pakistan wicket on that gloomy night.

Therein lies the glorious irony of India’s latest bowling effort. None of them had the riveting pace of Bumrah, the smouldering sharpness of Shami, neither their gifts or guile. But they had the single-minded devotion to execute their plans. They came with a plan in place and executed it with geometrical precision, neither under-doing nor over-doing it.

Quite often, bowlers would be reluctant in deploying a new tactic — short-pitched bowling was indeed a novelty tactic by the Indian seamers. Or in their enthusiasm they would overuse it, more so if the team has two young seamers, still cutting their teeth at the international level. But all four maintained utmost composure.

It was expected of Bhuvneshwar, one of the coolest and underrated operators in world cricket around and one who could, on current form, walk into any team in the world. Nothing frazzles him, neither his fall from grace in Test cricket — not because of lack of skill or craft but because of repeated injuries — nor the occasion that is an India-Pakistan game. Without any hype or fanfare, he has evolved into a complete T20 bowler. There is nothing he cannot do — he can bowl yorkers, bouncers, cutters, slower balls, the knuckle trick, still swing it both ways when needed, and is well-schooled in manipulating the seam, upright, scrambled, side of the hand, back of the hand, he could choose his tools at his whim. Such superfluous gifts could confuse a bowler or clutter his mind, but Bhuvneshwar does not needlessly indulge in his variations. He has a sparkling sense of clarity, the game-awareness to understand what he needs to bowl at what time. For instance, he bowled just one short ball in his first spell — and that fetched the wicket of Babar.

Surprise weapon

A lot of batsmen discount Bhuvneshwar’s deception with the short ball. His bouncers are not as devilish as Shami’s or as thrilling as Bumrah’s. His is the most innocuous, and batsmen don’t expect to be hopped around by Bhuvneshwar, not least in the early exchanges. They expect him to nip the ball around at full length. His bouncers are quicker than they expect, a reason they feel tempted to pull and not weave away as they would have to against Shami or Bumrah. They feel compelled to play before they realise that the ball is rushing them, a yard quicker, an inch higher. Just the subtle changes one needs to dismiss the world’s best batsmen.

Comparatively, Pandya dispenses the short balls more frequently. So, batsmen are not entirely caught off-guard. But he is adept at bowling different types of short balls. Not quite an Andy Roberts in range but still with enough ammo to rattle batsmen. The one to Rizwan was sharp and fast, angling in deviously and following the batsman. Rizwan tried a ramp, but the ball just kept climbing. The one to Ifthikar was more short-of-length and more of a lifter as Bumrah would bowl it. Clearly, it was his effort ball, one could hear the grunt in his follow-through. Khushdil received a staple short ball, banged in properly short and slower than the Rizwan one, but the batsman could not get under the ball. Pandya, too, mixed his lengths, usually resorting to good and short of length before blasting in the bouncer.

The only natural bouncer bowler was Avesh. He, though, tends to bowl too short and provide batsmen ample time to get underneath it. But here he was thriftier and employed the bouncer as a surprise weapon. Not to forget the impressive Arshdeep, whose mastery of angles and relentless energy troubled Pakistan’s openers. He does not purchase prodigious seam movement, or whip up disconcerting pace, or possess a rich repertoire of variations, but he doesn’t pretend otherwise either. That trait applies for all four pacers. They are unpretentious, even unassuming, like Bhuvneshwar, but they could collectively achieve what Bumrah and Shami could not.

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