Traditionally, India have depended on spin to win them matches in Test cricket. In fact, it became a culture of sorts in the country after the famous spin quartet weaved their magic in the 60s and 70s. The legacy was carried forward briefly by Maninder Singh and Narendra Hirwani among others before the arrival of Anil Kumble took it on an altogether different level. Kumble’s success further inspired the likes of Harbhajan Singh, who wrote his name into history by becoming the first Indian to take a Test hat-trick.
Even till a couple of seasons back, India were heavily reliant on Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to turn games around, especially at home. However, 2019 has given a whole new dimension to Indian cricket, with pace taking ascendancy both abroad and at home, reaching a zenith in the day-night Kolkata Test where fast bowlers picked up all the wickets to fall. Never has Indian cricket been blessed with such lightning talent. Here’s a look at the four men who have engineered the turnaround in Indian cricket.
The lanky Ishant Sharma has been around the Test arena for a decade. However, following the retirement of Zaheer Khan, he struggled to take charge as the leader of the attack in the absence of support from the other end. There was a lengthy phase in his career when he was constantly beating the batsmen with good balls but the wickets column remained almost barren. Questions were even being asked about whether India should start looking Sharma as he had not produced the desired results in spite of being given ample opportunties. Even the seven-for he claimed at Lord's in 2014 was seen as a one-off as India went on to tamely lose the series, and Sharma too could not reproduce a similar effort.
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Things began to change with the arrival of Jasprit Bumrah, the unorthodox pacer, who made his Test debut for India in early 2018. In the company of a wicket-taking bowler, Sharma slowly began to find his groove. And this year, his performance levels have only improved immensely. In six Tests this year, Sharma has picked up 25 wickets at an average of 15.56 with two five-wicket hauls.
While he had pretty much a limited role against South Africa, with the other bowlers doing the damage, Sharma came into his own against Bangladesh and West Indies with 12 and 11 wickets respectively in two Tests each. His eight wickets in the North Sound Test, where he unsettled Windies batsmen with his pace, were key to India’s triumph, and he also picked up a five-for in the pink-ball Test, where he ran through the tail in the second innings, and the top order in the first. Sharma’s new-found ability to bring the ball back in and the effective leg-cutters, very much on display at Eden Gardens against Bangladesh, have given much-needed versatility to his bowling.
For someone who went through a tumultuous ride on the personal front last year, when his wife came up with some shocking allegations, it is incredible how Mohammed Shami has kept himself together. Lesser mortals would have fallen apart and disintegrated, but Shami has immersed himself in his bowling so hard that all the controversies seem a distant memory. Such has been Shami’s incredible renaissance in 2019, even the legendary Dale Steyn has termed him the best fast bowler currently.
In eight Tests this year, Shami has 33 wickets to his credit at an average of 16.66. With the old ball, Shami has been literally unplayable at times while in the second innings his performances have been rather sensational. Shami has beaten batsmen for pace, unruffled them with bouncers and left them bewildered with movement. His five-for at Visakhapatnam had four batsmen dismissed clean bowled, and Bangladesh too struggled against his guile.
Had it not been for Bumrah’s injury, Umesh Yadav would still have been warming the benches. But, having gotten the lucky break, the Vidarbha pacer has ensured to make best use of it. Running in hard, Yadav has delivered significant breakthroughs for the team when partnerships were beginning to frustrate them. His accuracy too has improved significantly in comparisons to the loose balls he was bowling regularly in his previous stint with the Test team.
Yadav has played four Tests this year and has a highly impressive haul of 23 wickets. He picked up three wickets each in both innings of the Pune Test against South Africa, including the top three in the first innings. Yadav ended the year in Tests on a perfect note, with a five-for to bowl India to victory in the country’s first-ever Day-Night Test.
Owing to his injury, Jasprit Bumrah has been out of action for a while. However, even though he played only three Tests in 2019, he still made a significant impact. Bumrah finished the year with 14 wickets in three Tests at an average of 13.14. He claimed 5 for 7 in the second innings at North Sound and added a hat-trick to his kitty en route to his 6 for 27 at Kingston.
Bumrah’s contribution to the Test team however goes beyond numbers. He was the one who lifted India’s spirit in South Africa with a first-innings five-for at Wanderers that went a long way in helping India claim a consolation victory, having been demoralised in the first two Tests. Bumrah also blew away Australia with nine wickets in the 2018 Boxing Day Test as India went on to create history Down Under. The country will be praying that he returns fully fit from the stress fracture which has kept him out of action.