They’re coming for you. They’re coming for you. Jasprit Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin – they’re coming for you. As cricket struggles into another bubble-bound year of living dangerously, and even as Thursday’s Sydney Test has been menaced by Australia’s Covid-19 surge, the four-match Border‑Gavaskar Test series feels like a beacon of light.
Not just for its seesawing results, a genuinely vivid tussle between two nations vying with New Zealand for a spot in the ICC World Test Championship decider at Lord’s. But also for its tone and texture, the sense of Australia’s batsmen being hunted down by two bowlers of unorthodox, entirely India-branded brilliance.
The series score stands at 1-1. India have led at almost every moment outside the disastrous collapse to 36 all out when they were bossing the game in Adelaide. It is Australia who will travel to Sydney with fear in their hearts – and with Ashwin and Bumrah contemplating a truly rare achievement in the land of the side-on game, of cover drives and brawny back-of-a-length fast bowling.
Of all the things the Indian Premier League was supposed to have done to Test cricket by now – kill it, maim it, fatally deplete its skill base – producing a team to win over five days in Australia was pretty far down the list. Neither was the IPL meant to have provided India with a Test spinner to match Shane Warne’s red‑ball numbers.
And yet both of these things are lurking in the eyeline ahead of the third Test. Bumrah’s success is no surprise. He did this two years ago too, albeit against an Australia team still engaged in tearful self-flagellation over its own morality crimes against the baggy green.
Of India’s two grand mavericks Bumrah is most clearly the T20 product, a whippy-strong fast bowler who comes prancing off an eight-pace run and propels the ball with a kind of disco-finger flounce. Bumrah bowls toe-crushing, chin‑searing rocks. He struts and leaps and beams handsomely, that rarest of things a superstar “mystery” fast bowler.
But Ashwin embodies just as much the profound influence of short-form cricket; the ability, with brains and talent, to remake the game across all formats. He has also been the real star of this series to date. That stooped, agreeably nerdish figure has bowled more overs than anyone and taken 10 wickets, equal top with Pat Cummins. Best of all he has gone at 2.07 runs per over, offering total control in a country where young Australian batsmen are told stirring folk tales about smashing visiting finger spinners into the distant blue skies.
In two Tests Ashwin has dismissed Steve Smith twice and Marnus Labuschagne twice. It turns out Smith does have a weakness. You just need to be an inscrutable master of off-break variations. Oh, and bowl at his leg stump, not his off.
In the second test Ashwin had Smith caught on nought at leg gully, a perfectly sprung trap. In the second innings Bumrah trimmed his leg bail as Smith wandered across his stumps. Freakishly unorthodox runs: say hello to freakishly unorthodox wicket-takers. Smith is so good it would be no surprise to see him solve this angle of attack. For now he’s hopping about at the crease like a cat startled by a sneeze. It is easy to forget that Ashwin, aged 34 now, is also a product of T20 cricket, the IPL acting as a spark to a career that had begun to drift. Ashwin made his first-class debut for Tamil Nadu in 2006. He was dropped from the roster in 2009 by Chennai Super Kings and left to watch the season on the sofa with his family. “I was like someone that was very hungry and prepared to hunt on an island,” he said later, having worked like a maniac to return and ended up, from nowhere, the player of the 2010 IPL.
That inventive self-made quality has been his superpower in the years since. Ashwin is essentially an orthodox bowler with a clean action. But he is also a deep thinker, with a surgeon’s dexterity and a matador’s nerve.
Off-break bowlers traditionally have one great delivery: the off-break. Filtered through the glare of white-ball cricket, the need to win duels, to read a batsman and make the ball an elusive thing, Ashwin works constantly on minute details of angle, speed, dip, rip, flight.
He bowls a carrom ball, an off-break, a seamer, a leg-break. He bowls at leg stump, stops on his way in for a think, and rarely produces the same ball twice in a row. If Nathan Lyon is foot‑tapping trad jazz, Ashwin is sober-era Miles Davis, all high-craft sustained variation.
Mention of Lyon summons another Ashwin oddity, and another potential storming of the Australian citadels. Whisper it, but on pure numbers Ashwin’s Test record is now a match for the unsurpassable Shane himself. At the same stage in his career Shane Warne had 325 wickets at 25.34. Ashwin has 375 wickets at 25.22.
This is of course a bit of a stretch. Ashwin has played 50 of his 73 Tests in Asia, whereas Warne was a one-off, a match-winner almost everywhere. The current tour has bought Ashwin success for the first time in Australia, against a lineup that has taken him for just 14 boundaries from 85 overs to date.
Attacking Ashwin and Bumrah, finding a way to break that hold will surely be key to Australia’s strategy in the next two Tests.
Filtered through the short game, dizzyingly, unapologetically all their own work, the Ashwin-Bumrah axis is unlikely to shrink from the challenge.