Will India’s Bowlers Steal the Show from Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma This World Cup?

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Will India’s Bowlers Steal the Show from Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma This World Cup?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

B

atsmen are the subconscious that feeds the dreams of Indian cricket. For years, they crystallised the dreamscape through their monumental runs. With a preternatural gift for making runs, generations of Indian batsmen did the heavy lifting while the bowlers laboured. ODI cricket was the Indian batsman’s manor, above all, especially in the 21st century. These stars that were drawn in larger-than-life sketches went on to achieve mythical status after the 2011 World Cup.

Twenty-eight years after their maiden triumph, India was the undisputed king of the 50-over format. Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir… the names we immediately recall from 2011’s victorious campaign likely belong to batsmen. Though the bowlers played no small part, the shot that was heard around the world came from Dhoni’s willow. Now that India is once again set to envelop itself in the throes of a World Cup campaign, who are the batsmen who will decide its fate?

In an uncommon twist, there are none. It’s the bowlers who might prove to be India’s key to victory. Despite possessing arguably the best opening pair in ODI cricket right now, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, and obviously, Virat Kohli, it is slim pickings for the Indian lineup thereafter. In fact, that has been the case for a while now.

The transformation has been a long time coming but it was sped up by the arrival of Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Yadav. The duo has turned the bowling unit into a feared attack over the last two years, in their own unusual ways. Bumrah’s whippy action is often the subject of much interest, and Kuldeep belongs to that rare breed of wily left-arm spinners.

The level of control that the Indian bowlers are able to extract over the opposition is down to their knack for breaking partnerships

Wicket-taking is what unites the two, and the rest of the team. As far back as only a few years ago, one would frequently hear the former skipper Dhoni lament the inability of his bowlers to strike when the moment demanded. At the previous World Cup, India allowed Australia to score what turned out to be a mammoth total of 328 in the semifinal. The task of carrying India home was left to the batsmen and they failed, for once.

Any side will be very pleased with itself if it manages to touch a similar score against India this summer in England, as the Men in Blue have already proven their ability to pick up wickets frequently. In the last 18 months, India has set a new standard in one-day bowling. The team has two of the top five wicket takers in ODI cricket – Kuldeep, who is top by some distance, and Yuzvendra Chahal. If one were to look at bowling averages for the same period, Bumrah joins the spinning duo in the top 10. No other country can boast three names in that list.

The level of control that the Indian bowlers are able to extract over the opposition is down to their knack for breaking partnerships. Once we list down the variety of threats on offer, it becomes obvious why most international sides are preoccupied with halting the march of India with the ball.

First up, there’s Jasprit Bumrah. His unconventional action may distract all of us, but at the core of him is a bowler made of age-old verities. The yorker is his most obvious weapon, restricting runs and fooling batsmen. Many of them say it takes a while to get used to him, such is the rise off the surface and deceptive pace that he is able to generate. And like all great bowlers, Bumrah is of the firm opinion that the only way to stop runs is to get wickets.

India’s brittle batting may mean that they do not play together often at the World Cup but, if they do, the opposition may gasp for respite.

Then we move on the wrist-spinners. Kuldeep is not merely about the turn, he often confounds the opposition through flight and zip off the surface. He and Chahal are entrusted with the task of picking wickets, even if they do go for a few runs occasionally. India’s brittle batting may mean that they do not play together often at the World Cup but, if they do, the opposition may gasp for respite.

Chahal is a leg-spinner of more conventional origins but no less effective for that. However, he is the one who’s likely to be dropped for Ravindra Jadeja who is a better batsman. Jadeja is also known to be a parsimonious left-arm spinner, sending down his overs in quicktime with deliveries that dart towards the batsmen, nagging them till stumps are called.

That leaves the support pacers, who are leaders in their own right. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s swing and control is a familiar sight, just like Mohammed Shami’s seam and bustle. Like Chahal and Jadeja, the two might be in competition for one spot but whoever plays will be no pushover. The pace bowling duo was part of India’s squad for the previous World Cup; they have been around the block for a while. Right now, it seems Shami may have the edge over Bhuvneshwar with current form helping the former’s prospects. However, the latter is much improved in death overs—a weakness previously—and he could even play as a third seamer if the team’s combination changes.

Whoever plays, India’s bowling attack is set to be formidable. In a tournament that is expected to be dominated by batsmen, it is the Indian bowlers who are likely to make the difference – especially if the fears regarding the batsmen do come true. When India’s campaigns starts against South Africa in Southampton on Wednesday, we will know how far from the truth lies the pre-tournament assessment. It is not the most helpful ground for bowlers and they could be tested severely.

But if there is anything that we have learnt in recent years, it is that the Indian bowlers are now condition-proof. They can excel anywhere and everywhere. Gone are the days when only the willow used to talk the loudest. Now it is time for the white leather balls to sing(e).

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