Patrick Noone looks at two compelling battles between opening batsman and opening bowler as India leave South Africa on the brink.
There is something particularly evocative about a great spell of fast bowling. It’s the passage of play that gets the crowd ooh-ing and aah-ing as batsmen poke and prod, hop around the crease and play and miss at the ball as it whistles through to the wicket-keeper. They are the periods of play that stick in the mind and are talked about for years to come – Donald to Atherton, Wahab to Watson, Anderson to Kohli – the duels that provoke those who witnessed them to speak of them in hushed, reverential tones as though discussing something wholly other-worldly.
At The Hampshire Bowl on Day Seven of the 2019 World Cup, just under 15,000 spectators witnessed not just one, but two such spells of heated, high quality, hostile fast bowling. First, it was Jasprit Bumrah, arguably the best all-format bowler in world cricket, with the new ball from the Hotel End. Quinton de Kock was on strike, the premier batsman for South Africa.
Bumrah’s first ball took the inside edge of de Kock’s bat and dropped harmlessly onto his body. The second was too wide to trouble de Kock and was let go outside the left-hander’s off-stump. Bumrah reset the radar for the third ball, found the line, found the length; de Kock prodded forward and the ball flew past the outside the edge. Cue the oohs and aahs from the crowd, as though witnessing a strangely intense fireworks display.
Twice more in the over Bumrah would beat the bat of de Kock – it’s what he does. No seamer since the 2015 World Cup has induced a higher percentage of plays and misses than him. More oohs. More aahs.
Bumrah only bowled one ball to de Kock in his next over, beating the bat yet again. The opener was surviving but doing little more than that. Bumrah’s third over would prove decisive – three balls tight to de Kock’s off-stump cramped him for room, allowing him only a single, before the fifth ball delivered the killer blow. Wide enough to go after, full enough to drive, de Kock’s eyes lit up and he threw everything at it, only this time Bumrah didn’t beat the bat. The inside edge flew to Kohli at third (yes, third) slip and the oohs and aahs turned to a single roar. It was a second wicket for Bumrah having seen off the out of sorts Hashim Amla in his previous over – three overs bowled, two wickets, not a single clean connection from either batsman off his bowling.
Bumrah’s opening burst was thrilling and set the tone for what would follow. Yuzvendra Chahal bowled beautifully and deservedly finished with the best World Cup figures for an Indian leg-spinner for 16 years, but it was Bumrah who gave nothing away, forcing the South African batsmen to take risks against Chahal that they wouldn’t have otherwise had to do.
But Bumrah was not the only fast bowler to make a telling contribution with the new ball. Kagiso Rabada, another contender to the ‘best all-format bowler’ crown came out in the second innings with a modest total of 227 to defend and bowled with an intensity and an aggression that caused arguably the finest opening partnership in ODI cricket all manner of problems.
If the previous duel was Bumrah v de Kock, this was Rabada v all of India. When the crowd is as partisan as the one in Hampshire today, you can feel every shift in momentum, every subtle swing of the pendulum. There was a hush around the ground as Rabada steamed in and beat the outside edge of Shikhar Dhawan’s bat. Oohs and aahs again, but this time the expectation was replaced with trepidation. Rabada’s second ball was a snorter that rose up at Dhawan, the batsman only able to fend it to point for a single. This was serious pace, serious bounce, serious cricket.
Rohit Sharma then faced nine successive balls from Rabada and failed to score off the first eight. One of the dots was a genuine bouncer, the other seven in a tight cluster outside the right-hander’s off-stump. Only when Rabada went fractionally shorter did Rohit have the opportunity to score.
And so, with that single, Rabada’s battle with Dhawan resumed. The fifth ball of his third over was the first bad ball he bowled – a full toss that Dhawan failed to make the most of. Rabada had now bowled three balls to Dhawan – one too wide, one too short and one too full. As though using those balls to calibrate his line, his fourth delivery struck the killer blow, tempting Dhawan to push at one and feather it through to de Kock.
If you happened to be looking away at the moment the wicket fell, you would have been forgiven for not knowing it had fallen. The only reaction the crowd gave was one of a restless anxiety, little more than a murmur. Rabada had planted seeds of doubt in the Indian faithful’s mind. Maybe this wasn’t going to be the formality we all expected.
He would finish his first spell with figures of 5-0-21-1, numbers that hardly did justice to the quality of fast bowling he was showcasing. Rohit would survive the opening exchanges and go on to make the defining innings of the match with an unbeaten 122, while Rabada was not even afforded the consolation of picking up his wicket late in the piece, thanks to an inexplicably awful drop from David Miller. It summed up South Africa’s day – their tournament even – but Rabada is one of the few Proteas who will emerge from this campaign with credit, however it ends.
It is a quirk of the nature of cricket in 2019 that the two key battles in this contest should be between players who were team-mates in the IPL a mere three weeks ago. Bumrah was able to dismiss de Kock his fellow Mumbai Indian, before Rabada perhaps called on his memory of net sessions with Delhi Capitals to get rid of Dhawan. He would ultimately fall short of winning the match for his side but for a moment, he had a whole nation holding its breath.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.