JASPRIT BUMRAH, WHO has perhaps not bowled a bad ball all World Cup long, is wobbling in towards the bowling crease. This will be Bumrah and India’s first ball to Sri Lanka at the Wankhede in Mumbai after the batters set their southern neighbours a stiff target of 358 runs; this after being put in to bat first. Stiff is going to get so much stiffer once the great Indian new-ball bowler releases his first ball, but now he is still hopping in—a few brisk steps before a short run, followed by a jump using the width of the popping crease. Now, that slingy arm ensconced in a tight brown sleeve is going to create chaos. Devastation even.
The devious angle of the ball pitches into the line of Pathum Nissanka’s bat and darts away from it wickedly, rapping Sri Lanka’s opening batsman on the back pad and every spectator present at the Wankhede lend a thunderous echo to Bumrah’s appeal, which is immediately upheld by the umpire. Nissanka is as mesmerised as the crowd, so he reviews the decision. So, the stadium and the players erupt a second time once the Decision Review System confirms their collective suspicions. Nissanka is out for a golden duck and although this is just the first ball of the innings, it is indeed the beginning of a very brisk end.
Mohammed Siraj, who has not bowled a bad ball at Sri Lanka since 2021, is now running in to bowl his first ball in the following over. The last time Siraj played against the Lankans, at the Asia Cup final in Colombo just about 45 days ago, he ripped through their line-up with such malice (and six wickets, including four in a single over) that Sri Lanka folded for a grand total of just 50 runs. Tonight, he is going to try and see if he can do it again. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is.
Siraj charges in towards Sri Lanka’s other opener, the left-handed Dimuth Karunaratne. The ball hits the pitch and straightens, but too late for Karunaratne, who has already fallen over and missed his stroke completely. Now, Siraj is screaming at the umpire and so are the joyous men, women, and children on the terraces of Wankhede. Again, there is a second eruption and a third after the finger goes up and Karunaratne forces the giant screen to give him out all over again. He, too, is gone for a golden duck and the Sri Lankans all but know that they have already lost this match.
Never before in the history of ODI cricket had both opening bowlers struck with their first legal deliveries. But again, never before in the history of ODI cricket has India had two opening bowlers of such brilliance and quality as Bumrah and Siraj. There is a third great in the pack too: first-change bowler Mohammed Shami, a 33-year-old fast man who has turned into the bowler of the World Cup, despite not having played in the first four games of the campaign. But Shami will have to wait a moment at the Wankhede before he gets his due reward, for the other, younger Mohammed—Siraj, that is—is not quite done yet.
With his very next ball, Siraj thinks he has nicked off new batsman Sadeera Samarawickrama. The umpire and the crowd believe so too, but for once DRS informs everyone that Siraj indeed won’t be on a hattrick. No matter, for Siraj nicks off Samarawickrama three balls later anyway—caught by Shreyas Iyer at third slip. This is now Test match stuff and Sri Lanka are reduced to 2/3, soon to turn 2/4 after Bumrah’s following wicketless over where every ball is still an event. The batters are playing and missing, making the slip cordon, and the crowd ooh and aah along, followed by applause reserved for sixes and not dot balls. But in Indian cricket today, dot balls are cherished as much, if not more.
To begin his second over, Siraj steams in towards Sri Lanka’s captain and main bat, Kusal Mendis. He goes wide of the crease and whips his arm. The ball obeys, spitting off the pitch and crashing into Mendis’s off stump. It is madness in Mumbai. But there’s going to be more of the phantasmal, for the real sorcerer, Shami, is yet to be introduced into the attack. But he is used to arriving late at parties.
Only to shore up India’s batting depth, coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma had left out Shami for all-rounder Shardul Thakur for the first four games of this World Cup. Then, in Pune, Hardik Pandya got injured. So, for the match against New Zealand in Dharamshala, Suryakumar Yadav came in for Pandya; hence, to counterbalance the team’s bowling strength, Shami came in, and out went Thakur. And soon, out went five New Zealand batsmen, too, as Shami celebrated his return to World Cup cricket with a five-for.
Never before in the history of ODI cricket has India had two opening bowlers of such brilliance and quality as Bumrah and Siraj. First-change bowler Mohammed Shami, too, has turned into the bowler of the World Cup
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The last piece of the jigsaw in Shami had fallen in place and now, India had a bowling line-up to match, if not better, their venerated batting equivalent. At the press conference later that evening in Dharamshala, Shami was asked what it felt like to come back into the fold with such a bang and he replied, in Hindi: “I can only do something when I am given a chance. When you are not playing, it does get difficult. But I think everyone should enjoy each others’ success.”
Surely enjoying his success and eavesdropping on the press conference was Siraj, hiding behind a door and wearing his hood low over his eyes. He nodded along with Shami’s answers and the camaraderie in the fast bowling pack was evident. They carried that camaraderie to Lucknow, where after having been held to their lowest score of 229 for nine by England, India once again turned to their bowlers. Their fast bowlers, on a turning track, no less. Shami claimed four wickets, Bumrah three, and England folded for 129.
So, with nine wickets in just two games under his belt, Shami entered the fray in Mumbai in the tenth over, with Sri Lanka four down for 14 runs. And what an over it turned out to be. No one in the world has a better seam position than Shami, upright and dead serious, and hence no one in the world makes the ball talk, even dance, off the pitch like him. It really then is a tango, between Shami and the leather that is. The batsman has no part to play in this art form, except for getting out. And they got out in the proverbial truckload in Mumbai.
With just his third ball, he had Charith Asalanka caught at point by Ravindra Jadeja. Asalanka is no mug with the bat, he would go on to score his first century of this World Cup in the next game. But he was no match for Shami in this form, out for a pitiful one run off 24 balls. Neither was Dushan Hemantha, caught behind off the very next ball to leave Shami on a hattrick.
Even the odd ‘bad’ ball was getting him wickets. What seemed to be a leg side wide was in fact gloved by Dushmantha Chameera to wicketkeeper KL Rahul. But those were rare, for Shami was very often at the stumps and Angelo Mathews’ off stick was sent to the skies to leave Sri Lanka on 29 for eight wickets, and Shami on incredible figures of 4 wickets, 1 run. When he got his fifth, with the wicket of Kasun Rajitha, Shami collapsed to his knees not only because he claimed his third five-wicket haul in the space of 40 days to take his tally to four, the most by an Indian ever, it also made him the highest wicket-taker in ODI World Cups for India with 45 wickets.
Sri Lanka were eventually bowled out for 55, making their cumulative tally in the last two games against perhaps the strongest Indian ODI side read: 105 runs, 20 wickets in 35 total overs. Such numbers aren’t flukes; far from it. This makes one wonder if this is the country’s greatest-ever troika of fast bowlers operating at the same time. Definitely. Could it also be India’s best bowling attack, beyond just the pacers, at a major tournament? Possibly, given that the two left-arm spinners Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav have taken 14 and 12 wickets, respectively, at this tournament, with Jadeja wrapping up a very strong South Africa for a team score of 83 runs in the following match in Kolkata with a five-for of his own (Siraj and Shami did the early damage with three wickets between them).
Such muscle in the bowling line-up made former England captain Michael Vaughan post this: “So if Bumrah doesn’t get you, Siraj will. If Siraj doesn’t get you, Shami will. If Shami doesn’t get you, Jadeja will and if Jadeja doesn’t get you, Kuldeep will.” Succinct, given that for the first time in the history of Indian cricket, India’s bowlers are more celebrated than India’s batters, all while the current set of batsmen are some of the greatest to have graced the game. Imagine, then, just how phenomenal these bowlers must be.