India vs South Africa: Jasprit Bumrah breakdown rings a warning bell
How Dennis Lillee renewed his illustrious career is arguably the biggest injury comeback in the history of cricket. Put out of action prematurely in the early 1970s due to a lumbar (lower back) stress fracture, the Australian pace legend reworked his action and run-up, returning to finish as one of the all-time greats.
Fast bowlers suffering stress injuries in the lower back is an occupational hazard, due to the strain bowling a cricket ball at high speeds places in the area. Pat Cummins, Australia’s standout bowler in the latest Ashes series, is another great example of a comeback from such an injury.
However, Jasprit Bumrah, diagnosed with a minor stress fracture in his lower back that BCCI insists he will easily overcome, has still raised major concerns. A bowling style, ambling to the crease before packing all power and effort into an unusual action, could expose him to a repeat of such an injury, fear experts.
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The Indian fast bowler has emerged the hottest property in international cricket, including in Tests, a format he began playing only in January 2018, in South Africa. He has zoomed up the rankings and taken wickets by the bagful, making India arguably the best bowling line-up in international cricket today.
It has been six years since he made his first-class debut, but it has become clear with the few long-format matches (38 first-class games compared to 140 T20s and 83 ODIs) he has played that it is the limited-overs format, especially T20, that the 25-year-old’s body has got more attuned to. His unorthodox bowling action, X-factor particularly in shorter, more intense formats, is beginning to unravel, experts say.
Chief selector MSK Prasad says BCCI has been trying its best to take care of him. Bumrah was rested for the limited-overs leg in the recent West Indies series. Before the World Cup too, BCCI rested him for the limited-overs contests in both Australia and New Zealand. “This is not in our hands. We’re trying our level best to keep him in the best possible condition. And give him rest. Maybe, he is still young and will get stronger with time. He is playing all formats and we have been giving him sufficient rest for the T20s,” he explains.
A Board official said BCCI’s initiative to have regular tests has helped detect Bumrah’s injury early. “Though they are very expensive, we do regular radiology tests of players just to catch injuries early. The good part is that we have got to know it beforehand, so it can be cured before it becomes serious. He should be back to bowling in a month’s time,” said the official.
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That he doesn’t have much long format cricket behind him, however, isn’t lost on anyone. There is a feeling among people in Board that maybe because he hasn’t played adequate long format cricket, his body is finding it hard to adjust. There is lot of load. Every Test requires him to bowl 20-30 overs, something he wasn’t used to over the 4-5 years before his Test debut. Also, he is one player who is vital to, and playing, all formats unlike other bowlers.
Former India pace bowler Manoj Prabhakar says there is a problem with Bumrah’s action as it is not meant for bowling fast. Prabhakar says even Mohammed Shami is prone to injury.
“He (Bumrah) has such a small run-up, all the load falls on his lower back. As a bowler you need to have a back-up (run-up). Even while you are throwing a javelin, you run up to the delivery point building momentum. He doesn’t run. How will he survive? All good bowlers like Lillee (after comeback), Kapil Dev and Imran Khan had a good back-up,” he points out.
Prabhakar is also concerned with Bumrah’s open-chested action. “Your back always suffers with an open-chested action. It (combined with a lack of run-up) is not for the long run. He will have to take a lot of precautions and will have to be a bit side-on,” he says. “You can’t relax with this action. He is neither round-arm nor side-on. This forces him to bowl fast, else he’ll get hammered. That puts a lot of strain on the back.”
He feels for longevity, Bumrah will have to build back-up—a smooth run-up to the point of delivery and a tweak in his action, making it side-on. Now that Bumrah has begun bowling the outswinger, he is likely to wilt further. Maybe his latest weapon has been the undoing.
Prabhakar says a bowler with no run-up and high-arm, open-chested action cannot bowl an outswinger without risking injury. There are a couple of examples that Bumrah and the Indian team management may see as case studies.
New Zealand pace bowler Shane Bond, who rocked world cricket in the early noughties, hurt his back so badly that he had to quit after just 18 Tests and 82 ODIs. He too had an open-chested action, which put severe stress on his back. Lillee smoothened his run-up got a bit side-on after his injury comeback. “There have been some open-chested bowlers like Courtney Walsh, who have managed to bowl well. But they were different. They’d use wrists, had a decent run-up. Bumrah, he needs to change.”
The concern in cricket circles is that dropping pace may lead to Bumrah becoming less effective. But changing action is never easy for bowlers, it can even end their careers.
There is the likelihood BCCI, which feels it began giving Bumrah breaks a bit too late, will look to rest him more. But it could be hard. He has T20 commitments with Mumbai Indians; he played all 16 of MI matches last season. But shorter formats, particularly T20 cricket, can lead to faster bowlers breaking down.
“It is because you are dividing your four overs in one-, two-over spells. In longer formats, you bowl 6-7 overs at a stretch and your body is warmed up. In T20, it doesn’t happen that way. So you are always bowling without warming up,” explains Prabhakar. With Bumrah being a vital cog, his overs, like those of other top bowlers, are split into multiple spells often even in ODIs.
The Board, its team and Bumrah may have to weigh all this while reaching a solution. Even if he recovers quickly, some harsh decisions may be required, like Lillee cutting down on pace and changing his run-up and delivery style.