CHENNAI: The dictionary definition of a ‘flat-track bully’ reads thus: “A sportsperson who dominates inferior opposition, but who cannot beat top-level opponents.” The term is widely used in a pejorative context across different sports and owes its origin to batsmen who score a mountain of runs on flat surfaces but flounder when the conditions are demanding.
If you allow for some creative license and apply the term for bowlers, though, it can be construed as a glowing compliment. When the surface does not have a modicum of assistance for the fast bowlers, it needs them to strain every sinew to get something out of the pitch and bully (metaphorically of course) opposition batsmen on a flat track.
For the latter part of the fourth Test, the surface at the Oval seemed to be devoid of any assistance for the pacers. The pitch had sported a covering of grass on the opening day and helped England skittle India for 191, but the 22 yards were to become better and better for batting as the match progressed.
So when Jasprit Bumrah resumed proceedings after lunch on the final day alongside the left-arm spin of Ravindra Jadeja, he knew that the surface was not his ally. By then, India had toiled away tirelessly for 59 overs in the second innings with just two England wickets to show for their efforts. While the threat of England gunning down the target remained minimal with just 54 runs coming in the first session of Day 5, the chances of an India win seemed to be receding too.
This is where Bumrah’s extraordinary array of skills entered the fray. In his very first over after lunch, all it needed was for a couple of balls to tail into Haseeb Hameed for Bumrah to get excited. At the other end, Jadeja was not just producing rippers – like the one that turned past Hameed’s bat and hit off-stump – but also getting the ball to land in the footmarks to rough up one side of the old Dukes. As Virat Kohli informed later, Bumrah was clear then that the ball – ripe for reverse swing – will not be taken off his hands anytime soon.
With reverse swing coming into play, the 27-year-old was always going to be a handful. Former England captain Mike Atherton, who was on commentary for Sky Sports, could see it from a distance. These were his prescient words just before that delivery to Ollie Pope, which made Bumrah the fastest Indian pacer to 100 Test wickets.
“You have to really watch for the inswinger because he can bowl it brilliantly. It will be a yorker and it will probably be his effort ball. He will nag away and then try to bowl one that has got an extra half yard of pace. A full inswinger, Waqar Younis style,” Atherton called the action.
It wasn’t quite a yorker to Pope but still full enough and quick enough to beat the English middle-order batsman all ends up. And then an over later, it was Jonny Bairstow’s turn to face the pacer's wrath. It was the perfect delivery to a new batsman: full, fast and tailing in to hit the bottom of the stumps.
It was only the fourth ball that Bairstow was facing in his innings, but you suspect that he wouldn’t have had an answer even if it was his 100th.
“The ball was reversing a little bit, not as much as it does in India. We have bowled a lot with the reverse-swinging ball. We wanted to try and use that option and it worked in our favour,” a self-effacing Bumrah said of his heroic post-lunch spell that read 6-3-6-2.
Atherton’s reference to Waqar during Bumrah’s spell certainly struck a chord. Their bowling actions are vastly different, but their modus operandi on such flat pitches is similar: bowl searing yorkers directed at the toes and mix it up with the odd snorting bouncer. And Waqar was a familiar name at The Oval of course, having played a lot of his county cricket for Surrey when he would routinely use reverse swing to scythe through hapless batting line-ups. In essence, they carry that rare ability to bully batsmen even on the flattest of tracks.