Let me tell you a story.
It takes place on a pitch that has become so flat that there’s serious discussion that 368 might be chased down. Only nine times in the entire history of the game has that total been chased down but through September 5 turning to September 6, 2021, there’s discussion that this pitch is so flat, well, it could happen.
It is so flat – as Moeen Ali points out at the end of the fourth day – genuine tailend batters are hitting straight drives off Chris Woakes, England’s best bowler in this game. (You could put a full stop three words earlier into that last sentence, though words would have to be had.)
It’s hot too. The concept of “summer” has been a running joke in England since, I don’t know, 1707 when it became Great Britain, but probably at least as long as this island’s been around. Shane Warne had a good one: England is nine months of bad weather and then three months of winter. Nobody says it but everyone suspects it’s payback for Empire.
This is one of those days, though, when a long stretch of skies as grey as concrete is interrupted by the sun, which has remembered that it must occasionally shine on this corner of the planet. It’s been so long, it’s beating down harder today, to make up for its absence.
Here enters our protagonist, who goes by the name of Jasprit Bumrah. You might call him the hero, though if we’re being honest, he doesn’t look like a hero. He isn’t tall. He’s not built like fast bowlers, who, if cricket were a movie, would be its leading men: broad-shouldered, dreamy eyes and shampoo-ad hair (or, as we call him, Pat Cummins). Bumrah is none of this, though his hair has become snazzier of late.
What most makes him none of this is the approach to the crease which, on days we’re feeling lazy, we call a run-up. It’s not. Nobody is quite sure how many steps he takes in all. It starts with ten steps of walking which, and I’m no expert, doesn’t seem to be a great way to build the momentum that you need to bowl in the high 80s mph.
His left hand, holding the ball, sways out a little before it comes back to give his right hand the ball. He’s a little hunched, peering in at the batter, and if you didn’t know better, from behind, very briefly this could be Murali. It isn’t, as we’re about to see.
Then the steps get shorter, but faster. He sets himself with a tiny skip like a child riding a toy horse. How many steps don’t ask. Ten, 12, 14, nobody can say. There’s a left-arm spinner by the name of Nauman Ali who has a longer run-up. This is less a run-up, more a teen tip-toeing out of the house late at night before realising the parents are up and, oh Lord, better skedaddle out of here sharpish.
Then he’s at you.
England are doing okay. Better than okay actually, enough to keep the embers glowing on those discussions of a record chase. They’ve lost a couple of wickets. India have bowled with discipline and vigour and, running in to lunch, have teased a plot spoiler. All morning, they’ve been hounding England’s stumps, with a cluster of fielders in on the leg-side, trying to find something that hasn’t been seen all summer: reverse swing. Nobody knows when it was last seen. There was some ruckus about sandpaper a couple of years ago and since then, like Houdini, it’s gone. But in these two hustling pre-lunch overs from Mohammed Siraj, just maybe there’s something.
The run-up is the easy tell in Bumrah’s package, which is to say it’s the less slightly less impossible part of it to pick. Because the action is a picture. The left arm ramrod straight like he’s offering a salute. The right arm so whippy and bendy it must have been stitched on from a different body. The experts call it hyper-extension.
It’s thoroughly discombobulating and then he does stuff with the ball that others can’t, or not to the same degree anyway. Like here, in his first over after lunch, he finds some late movement away from Haseeb Hameed. A little fright, even if Rishabh Pant then turns it into a bit of unintentional comedy, getting nutmegged and letting the ball through for byes.
People start talking. “Reverse right? You saw reverse? I saw reverse. I think.”
The scare works because Hameed’s now gone. It’s a serious bit of bowling from a serious bowler, who’s playing ahead of an even more serious bowler, but nobody is talking about that now. And that ball’s about to be completely overshadowed because at this moment, there’s something in the air and it isn’t just this damned virus.
Bumrah’s coming in now and everything’s become an ooh and an aah. Ollie Pope and Joe Root are pleasant batters to watch but movements are becoming jerkier. Binoculars can confirm that Bumrah’s not flinging low-voltage tasers at them. He’s bowling cricket balls.
At this point, let’s recall some advice from Wasim Jaffer. After playing Bumrah for the first time, he thought playing him more often would hold batters in good stead, otherwise “before you understand him, he could strike”. Wasim Jaffer is a good, smart man but people have seen Bumrah bowl plenty now, and on at least 268 occasions in international cricket alone, familiarity is not breeding contempt but neither is it building understanding.
Because in this over, we are about to understand that understanding Jasprit Bumrah does not mean understanding Jasprit Bumrah. Pope is English batting’s next big hope. He’s good. He’s faced 104 balls from Bumrah in his career. He’s more than likely watched hours of his bowling on video. He’s faced six balls from him today and he understands what Bumrah is doing. Bumrah’s bowling full and straight at him. Mike Atherton in commentary understands what Bumrah is doing because he’s telling us about all the full, big-booming reverse-swingers at this ground over the years (See Younis, W of Vehari and Surrey). Everyone at the ground understands.
Understanding is over-rated. It’s the doing something about it that matters. The fifth ball of this over is full. It’s angling in, the seam steady and even though it’s not yorker-length, it’s not taking no for an answer. Pope’s bat-face is present to greet it but the ball gives it the ol’ fake handshake and slips straight through. Psych.
Welcome Jonny Bairstow. Root’s there at the non-striker’s end to talk him through a little bit about what’s happening. Not that he needs to. Bairstow knows what’s up. He’s been watching. He’s played enough cricket. He’s a World Cup winner. He knows that everyone knows that bowlers like – and quite often do end up – hitting his stumps. Bumrah is a bowler. He likes hitting stumps. It’s not rocket science. It’s not even single-digit multiplication.
Four balls is all it’s going to take and this one is all that adrenalin of fast bowling, all that love for a fast bowler hitting stumps, of fast bowling being an uprising against the tyranny of batting, the big bats, the flat decks, the tiny boundaries, the muscled power-hitting, the sixes, the edges that are sixes, the ramps and switch-hits, the tailenders hitting sixes, the oppressive laws … all of that feeling funnelled into this tiny millisecond. Late swing, late dip, late coming-down of bat. This right here is the party. Even the stumps are in on the party, a bit drunk, not falling-over drunk but tipsy, swaying. Bumrah’s not tasering anyone, but in the crowd at least one man is confessing that he is tingling and he will swear on his life that he is not alone.
England’s gone from 100 for 0 to 146 for 5 and will soon be out for 210. The sun’s still out. It’s still summer in September (thanks climate change). The pitch is still flat, only that Jasprit Bumrah has happened to it.