Is Bumrah still in white-ball mode?

Is Bumrah still in white-ball mode?

This time last year, it may have been hard to imagine so. But the harsh reality is Jasprit Bumrah, Indian cricket's finest find in the last five years, looks the weakest link in the current pace attack.

With the pitch aiding lateral movement and overhead conditions tailor-made for swing, Bumrah was expected to be India's lynchpin in the World Test Championship final in Southampton against eventual champions New Zealand. But apart from a brief period in the second innings, he remained the least effective of the three Indian quicks. His usual incisiveness seemed to have taken a break, the surprise deliveries remained conspicuous by their absence and the novelty factor stemming from his unusual action appeared to have outlived its utility.

One bad match, you might say, shouldn't be cause for concern or criticism. But this impression hasn't gathered moss overnight. Since he destroyed West Indies in a two-Test series with a 13-wicket haul in the immediacy of the 2019 World Cup, he hasn't been the same probing bowler, especially in the longer format, who bewildered batsmen. Save the Melbourne Test during the last tour when he claimed six wickets in a match India won to level the series, his performances have been way below the standards he has set for himself since his sensational Test debut in South Africa at the start of 2018.

"Strictly speaking of the WTC Final, lack of Test-match practice was the main reason," says a former India pacer who requested not to be named. "All he got to play before going to England was the IPL, and that sort of becomes a muscle memory which you can't get rid of immediately. 

"What I saw of him in England was that his length was ideal for T20s, but not Test match cricket. Everybody says 'pitch it up one yard further', but it's not that easy. So, you try harder and overcompensate for that. The harder you try, the more awry your direction goes."

Bumrah missed the last Test against Australia at the Gabba with an injury and played only two of the four Tests against England at home, the second of which saw him send down a grand total of just six overs.

If you were to divide Bumrah's 20-Test career into two halves – the first from his debut to the tour of the Caribbean in 2019, and the second after that outing -- the contrast is stark.

His first 12 Tests brought him a staggering 62 wickets, that's more than five wickets a match. He gave away just 19.24 runs per wicket and took less than 44 balls for each scalp. He also had five five-wicket hauls.

In the designated second half, he has played eight Tests spread over 16 months for only 21 wickets, which is just over two and a half wickets a Test. Consequently, both his average and strike-rate have taken a huge beating. He has conceded nearly double the runs (34.95) to take each wicket, while consuming a whopping 75.4 balls to dismiss a batsman. There hasn't been a single five-wicket haul in these eight Tests.

Every player worth his salt goes through such patches, with their game suffering for various reasons. So, what exactly has taken the edge off Bumrah's bowling? 

"It's a lot to do with the mindset," offers former India pacer and bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad. "Rather than forcing the batsman into mistakes with that three-quarter length, you are waiting for him to make mistakes. You are not going to trouble the batsman with the typical white-ball length. At the end of the day, your economy may look fine, but what's there to show in the wickets' column? Make the batsman commit to the front foot, encourage him to play his shots through covers, mid-on or mid-off... Only then can you create chances to take wickets."   

But what about the few Tests before the WTC Final? 

"That's why I stress on the mindset," says Prasad. "Look, if there has been such a dip in his performance in the last few Tests, something is not going right. If people say he is doing everything right and that the same type of deliveries got him so many wickets, why is he not doing so now? I think it all boils down to getting inside his mind and finding out why he is struggling. That's what coaching is all about at this level, not correcting your technique," he explains.

At 27, Bumrah has it in him to serve the Indian team for at least another half-dozen years even in the longest, most demanding format. Whether it's a technical or a mindset issue that’s currently pulling him down, the coaches and the bowler need to work towards first identifying and then sorting it out because his return to wicket-taking form is crucial to the team's success, starting with the Test series in England from August 4.

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