The bowler approached the wicket at a lope, a trot, and then a run. He suddenly exploded in a flurry of arms and legs, out of which flew a ball.
Once a sporting spectacle has been described in the manner of an impressionist work of art, as was done by the great Douglas Adams, anything lesser seems unbecoming.
For as long as memory serves, India has been the patron shrine of the almost-there pacer. It has haunted their bowling attack across generations. Even when Kapil Dev was flouting some of those norms, he often found himself amid a sea of spinners, some opening the bowling with him. The term “exploded” from the description above rarely, if ever, seemed to apply. Even as kids, we prayed for Srinath and, more pertinently, Venkatesh not to get flayed before Kumble & co. came on.
This problem is highlighted whenever playing in big game situations. When competing inside the Colosseum, you require gladiators by your side. Now this is the third consecutive time the tournament will be hosted in the subcontinent, having been hosted by Sri Lanka in 2012 and by Bangladesh in 2014. The 2014 final that India lost to Sri Lanka is illuminating as a comparison piece in a couple of ways.
First, if one compares the team composition then and now, very little difference will be found. The batting is the exact same, with Rahane or Dhawan being the contentious spot back then as well. There are some talking points worth pondering over when it comes to the batting. None more so than The Mysterious Case of the Ugly Rahane. Not far behind are The Lazy Magnificence of the Confidence Child Yuvi and The Theatrical Duality of Captain Cool. It would indeed be a fitting tribute to Dhoni’s T20 career if India could pull this tournament off, nine years after the events in Johannesburg that launched a thousand millionaires via IPL. The chink in the batting armor that may prevent this is, as has been obvious for a while, the relative lack of firepower in the lower middle order. Pandya has especially shown himself to be a weak link with the bat, but with Dhoni seemingly coming into a bit of form, this may well turn out to be a trivial argument.
The bowling sees changes only in the pace department. The eclectic pairing of Ashish Nehra and Jasprit Bumrah, the most senior and junior members of the first XI respectively, replace the “old” reliables Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohit Sharma. Mohammad Shami is still the reserve pacer. Amit Mishra has been replaced by Hardik Pandya, with Jadeja elevating his spin credentials.
The 2016 tournament thus brings about a feeling of a reunion, of second chances, of redemption. It is also here, however, that the tournament concept bungles itself. Two years is too small a gap between world cups, of any stripe. One cannot experience a similar scale of cerebral fulfilment if the same redemption were to occur after a four year gap. Sachin Tendulkar’s had been in the making since 1996, and the wave of the 2011 euphoria resonates to this day.
The second point of illumination is how India’s bowling unit shines with a brighter sheen this time around. Ashwin has become a complete spin bowler, in technique as well as temperament. To ask for more would be pushing into the galaxy of all time greats, and not a reasonable request as such. Jadeja is a far more accomplished spin bowler too, and the #8 spot looks much better on him than his previously held #7.
But these two were the linchpins of our bowling two years ago as well. What stands out are the twin pace changes – The Ra-Rah movement. Bhuvi and Mohit were workhorses who relied on containment. When a team already has Ashwin and Jadeja playing those roles, what can really complete the unit are pacers who contribute with a more attacking, wicket-taking style. The Ra-Rah movement has accomplished exactly this. Nehra and Bumrah both have strike rates of 15 in T20s this year, exceptional stats especially considering the tracks they have been playing on. Nehra’s swansong – experienced, incisive, and lethal – has been a wonderful sight, perhaps because he now has nothing to fear but fear itself. Bumrah, exploding off his run up, right arm nearly disentangling itself from the torso, is just the right amount of verve, deceptiveness, and skill to complement Nehra.
The containment strategy is also detrimental when your batsmen are unable to put up a big total, as the 2014 final again illustrated. A greater degree of confidence can be placed upon the current bowling unit, thus raising all the more India’s chances of lifting the trophy this time.
It’s a tough group that India finds itself in – with Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, and of course, Pakistan at the Eden Gardens. India have already made a giant impression by lifting the Asia Cup undefeated. Now it’s all about how the pace Ra-Rah complements the spin Ra-Ra of Ravichandran and Ravindra.