An irresistible spell

An irresistible spell

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By Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

Something happened at Lord’s on Monday afternoon. Something visceral yet cerebral, raw yet refined. A spectacle but also an art form. Thrilling to watch yet difficult to explain. It arrived with an intensity that few would have foreseen and it overshadowed most of what had come before.

The event in question – four grown men distilling the craft of fast bowling into a theatric performance – will stand the test of time. Bumrah, Shami, Ishant and Siraj: varying in height and experience but united in tearing a hole through English defenses. Their collective figures: 45.5 overs, 14 maidens, 91 runs, 10 wickets. The collective emotion: a thunderous woah.

A quick reminder that Stokes, Archer, Broad and Woakes were absent. England’s batting line-up in this series has comprised Joe Root, daylight, and a set of men searching for form. Some started the series without any match practice. And at one point during the final day at Lord’s, Root had more runs in two Tests than any of his team-mates would have in Test cricket all year.

And yet. England led in the first innings and nearly closed the game out on day four. They were heavy favorites at the start of day 5 and even after that ninth-wicket partnership that lifted India’s lead to 271 – England were left to bat out 60 overs for a draw. Two sessions. On a pitch where the bounce was true. Against an attack with the lone spinner. So what happened?

A little past 2PM, Bumrah got Burns. The ball sprung off the pitch, slapped the leading edge and flew to cover. Most openers hope to ease into the first over, flicking through the leg side, to gather their thoughts at the other end. Bumrah demands split-second decisions. Rock, paper, scissors: bounce, cut, lift. Forward or back; play or leave; sway out or commit. Hesitation spells trouble. The ball ballooned. Siraj took a dolly. The knock was over before it had begun.

Few minutes later Sibley pushed at Shami, edged, and walked off. There was no need for the umpire to raise his finger: so comprehensive was this defeat. Watch the replay if you wish: here was a gift from the fast bowling gods, cast in gold, sprinkled with stardust. Observe the release, the seam spinning on that vertical axis, the ball persisting, the seam resisting, the complete absence of cunning in the delivery, the bowler spelling out the plot syllable for syllable. Here is the shiny side, here is the seam, here is my plan: it will land on an awkward length, bounce at an awkward height, and move just enough to lay threadbare your defensive technique. What are you going to do about it? A tailender might have survived. The consolation for Sibley: he was good enough to nick it.

Fast bowling is an irresistible act. When a group of fast bowlers turn it on, it can resemble a divine dance. You sense the rhythm in the run-ups, the arms like pistons, the legs gathering momentum with each thup, thup, thup. The wicketkeeper feels it in his gloves. The slips take delight in the ball stinging their palms. The ooohs are exaggerated. The ‘bowled yaar’ more animated. A group of fast bowlers should be called a flamboyance. Ball after ball, the chance for a great ball, a great set up, a great spell. Outside off, outside off, short, full, gone. The sweet sound of the ball nicking the bat. The energy in the shrieked ‘catch ’em’. And best of all, the rattle of timber.

Bumrah and Shami gave way to Ishant and Siraj. One a 103-Test veteran with the zest of a rookie; the other a rookie bowling with the maturity of a veteran. Ishant worked over Hameed and Bairstow: the first beaten for pace (off Ishant’s third ball), the second for movement (at the stroke of tea). To score or block: that delicate dilemma. To shoulder arms or to expect the ball to come in. Decisions. Decisions. Against a bowler cranking it up over 80mph. And offering nothing to release the pressure. Ishant’s spell before tea: 4-0-6-2.

Post tea, Bumrah bowled three balls to Root. The first outside off, moved away. The second came in a shade. And the third – a lethal combination of the two – angled in and held its line. Root poked. The ball took the edge and flew to first slip. Anyone who has bowled a cricket ball knows how hard it is to pitch two consecutive deliveries in a desired spot. Bumrah weaves an elaborate web and chooses when to lay a trap. Against great batsmen. When they are well set. Though by now batsmen around the world understand that against Bumrah, one is never set.

Two overs later Bumrah delivered one from wide of the crease. It angled into Buttler and moved away: so perfect was the ball, it missed the bat. The next one angled in and held its line. The third was a short ball on fourth stump. Buttler cut airily. The ball flew off the edge… and shot through Kohli’s palms at first slip. Three dots. Once beaten. Once dropped. Twice foxed.

Fast bowling is as much a craft as it is an art. At its essence lies repeatability: bowl a series of balls on the same spot and you stand a chance to wear a batsman down. Throw in a bad ball and a boundary releases the pressure. Coaches prescribe running in, targeting a spot on the pitch, presenting an honest seam and keeping at it. Often, the surprise is that there is no surprise at all. As with how Mohammad Siraj kept beating Moeen Ali by landing the ball on leg stump and angling it across the left-hander’s body. Once, twice, three times. Was this part of a plan? Would he bring one in and round off the scheme? Actually, he kept pitching it on leg, found the edge, and got his reward. Sometimes the set-up is that there is no set-up. The bowler persists. The batsman falls. It is as straightforward as that.

Sam Curran was the new left-handed batsman. Siraj stuck to his same old plan. Pitching on leg and slanted it across: a photocopy of the previous delivery. Curran pushed. Curran edged. Curran left for a golden duck. They say history repeats itself. The cliché had come alive in a span of two balls.

England were seven down. Buttler and Ollie Robinson blocked and swayed. Time was running out. And the match was heading towards a draw. Bumrah was straining every last sinew. Bouncers and yorkers, using the width of the crease, moving it in and out, over the wicket, then around the wicket. A bouncer that flew way over Robinson. Another bouncer that evaded Pant. Deliveries that spelt a growing desperation for a wicket.

Except. This was a glorious set-up. Fifth ball of the fiftieth over, Bumrah from around the wicket, loading up with the same intensity as the previous, as if intent to knock Robinson’s head off. The same jump, the same arm-speed, the same tension in his facial muscles… but the ball was spun out of the fingers rather than hurled with force. It pitched on leg, floated towards the stumps and struck Robinson’s back pad: so fully beaten that the only question was where the ball had pitched and not where it was headed. The umpire thought it was outside leg. Bumrah was under no such illusions. Up went the review. And down came the decision. Robinson lbw Bumrah 9. But more accurately: magicked out.

Siraj wrapped up the game with two edges: the first off Buttler’s outside edge and the second that grazed the edge of the off stump – a full ball that gave Anderson no chance and presented Rohit Sharma a low chance at second slip, which he completed one-handed. Ten wickets, all falling to the fast bowlers. A famous victory. Made possible by a bowling performance for the ages.

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One of cricket’s finest match reports, a calypso by Egbert Moore, aka Lord Beginner, was composed after West Indies’ first Test victory at Lord’s in 1950. Over a mere five stanzas it provides an atmospheric retelling, and conveys how much it meant for those watching.

Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Yardley tried his best
But Goddard won the test.
They gave the crowd plenty fun;
Second Test and West Indies won.

With those two little pals of mine
Ramadhin and Valentine.

The spin twins Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine shared 18 wickets. But the calypso finds no reason to delve into their performances in detail. The two men only appear in the chorus and it is up to us to imagine the potency of their spells. There is one brief moment though when Lord Beginner changes the chorus, as if to tell us how influential the spinners were.


But Gomez broke him down,
While Walcott licked them around;
He was not out for one-hundred and sixty-eight,
Leaving Yardley to contemplate.

The bowling was superfine
Ramadhin and Valentine.

Seventy-one years on, in another second Test, also at Lord’s, four Indian fast bowlers made possible a famous victory. And as then, the bowling was indeed superfine.

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