2019 is the year of the fast bowler. Australia had Pat Cummins churning out outrageous numbers as he climbed to No. 1 in the Test rankings, and they had Mitchell Starc’s resurgence in the World Cup - his favourite stage - after a few years of poor form and recurring injuries. Then you had the emergence of Jofra Archer and his subsequent fast-tracking into the England World Cup team, where he bowled the Super Over as they won(?) their first title. New Zealand had Lockie Ferguson's outstanding moustache, as well as his bowling. And finally, you have the Indian pace unit, spearheaded by the best true fast bowler India has ever had - Jasprit Bumrah.
Generational teams have usually been defined by the presence of game-changing fast bowlers in their line-ups. South Africa had Allan Donald and then Dale Steyn. Australia had Lillee and Thompson, and then McGrath, Gillespie, and Brett Lee. Pakistan have an endless supply chain of terrific fast bowlers beginning with the incomparable Wasim Akram, and his more-than-able deputy Waqar Younis, and then moving to Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami, and now Mohammed Aamer. New Zealand had Hadlee, then the all-too-brief career of the wonderful Shane Bond, and now they have the likes of Trent Boult. West Indies need no explanation, with the likes of Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Michael Holding, and Malcolm Marshall having played for them. But India, India has never had a truly fearsome fast bowler before, no-one that has batsmen shivering in their boots the way Bumrah does. No-one with the same aura that Bumrah exudes.
And the best part is, he isn’t the only one they have.
Ishant Sharma is worlds away from the mediocre bowler he used to be. Over the last two years he has taken 80 wickets in 19 Tests. His average has dropped by 4 runs per wicket in that span, to 32.68. He looks stronger and bowls smarter than the gangly youth who broke into the team over a decade ago. With each wicket he takes now, he shuts up more detractors - though there shouldn’t be any left. He is the real deal.
Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are also match-winners in their own right. As a group, India's pacers have averaged 15.16 in Tests in 2019, at a strike-rate of 31.06 - both ludicrous numbers. That average is the best for a pace unit since 1952. The trio that played against Bangladesh, Umesh, Ishant and Shami, all picked up more than 20 wickets this year, all at an average below 20. The only previous time three fast bowlers from the same team achieved this was for England in 1978, when Ian Botham, Chris Old and Bob Willis shared the honors. Never before has even one Indian fast bowler accomplished this.
With these bowlers, India’s pace unit is outplaying their spinners in India, which is an almost unbelievable feat - especially given that their spinners are no slouches. Jadeja and Ashwin are amongst the best all-rounders in the world, and Ashwin remains one of the best spinners in Test cricket, despite somewhat limited usage this past year.
Add to this Deepak Chahar's recent brilliance in T20s and the hot-and-cold skills of Hardik Pandya, and you can see how there's cause for much optimism in India. With this crop of pacers, India could conceivably dominate cricket for the next five-ten years.
When asked about the pace unit’s emergence this year, captain Virat Kohli said: “Everything happens with time, they have gained more experience and now they are bowling well together. Now they take ownership of their training, their fitness and everything. Shami was already in the system when I became captain, Ishant had played 4-5 years of Test cricket, Bhuvi was in the system, Umesh also came into Test cricket in 2012, Bumrah is a late addition but he has blended in very well too.”
“The communication is very clear. If someone is going through a workload problem, we don’t tell them it’s up to you, we take that call for them. We tell them to train and come back, bowl like this, get 20 wickets. They feel very secure. Even if they don’t play, we have enough back-up bowlers, so the bench strength is also helping us a lot,” Kohli further added.
We can only hope that this formula for success remains in place and working, and that this crop of Indian fast bowlers - the best we’ve ever had - continue to reap the rewards for it.