The recent one-day series against New Zealand was the first time in Jasprit Bumrah's career that he went wicketless in an ODI series. In the three-match series before that one, against Australia, he took only one wicket (of Adam Zampa). Bumrah has played seven T20Is in 2020, and while he has taken eight wickets in them, he has also given away runs at higher than his overall average in three of those matches. The two Super Overs he bowled against New Zealand went for 17 and 13 runs.
Are these numbers worrying?
Let's first concede that champions pay a price for their own success, because they are always judged by the lofty standards they set for themselves. For an average Joe like me, 40 was a decent score, but for Sachin Tendulkar it was a failure. Bumrah, in his short international career, commands the kind of respect and stature where he is expected to turn the game on its head in an over or two. Every ball that he bowls is an event. The opinion that Virat Kohli and others have voiced, that he is the best all-format bowler in the world, isn't unjustified.
Bumrah is lethal in all three phases: he is economical and a wicket-taker with the new ball in the powerplay overs, he bowls in the middle overs and breaks partnerships, and he is lethal with the old ball in the death overs.
He has no evident weakness. No conditions were left unconquered, and no batsman had found a definite way to neutralise him.
Considering all this, you feel that the numbers mentioned in the first paragraph, if not worrying yet, are a matter for some concern. Unlike when a batsman fails to put up a big score, a bowler's failure to contribute hurts the team more. For every Kohli, there's a Rohit Sharma, a KL Rahul and a Shikhar Dhawan who can step up and fill in. But the role assigned to Bumrah can't be fulfilled by anyone else. A batsman of Kohli's class can afford a bad day every now and then without his team being hugely affected, but a bowler of Bumrah's class cannot, for once he is assigned the task of bowling the death overs, there really is no other viable alternative left for that role. Also, a dry spell for a batsman is easier to define compared to a lean patch for a bowler, for all good balls don't get wickets - the other side of which is that you're allowed to be patchy a few times in a game.
To be fair to Bumrah, this is the first time in his short but illustrious career that he has gone through a lean phase. The fact that he has had an injury and was out of the game for a while might also have something to do with it. I have no experience to be able to comment on how tough it is for a fast bowler to recover from a stress fracture of the back and how it affects their efficiency on return, but it's only fair to assume that it does take some time for a bowler to find his groove again after an injury and layoff of this sort.
When a player is going through a lean phase, cricket pundits are obliged to find a reason. We have heard people say that batsmen have become more defensive against Bumrah, and that that explains the relative lack of wickets. But what about the expensive spells, then?
The other theory doing the rounds is that batsmen have got used to his action, but if that is the case, how was the same action hugely effective right up until he got injured? You can only get used to a certain bowler's action if you have played him a lot, but before India's current tour, the New Zealand batsmen had not faced a single ball from Bumrah since the World Cup semi-final. Familiarity can breed contempt but this is definitely not the case here yet.
So what has changed?
The lengths Bumrah has bowled in 2020 have changed a little from those he consistently bowled before the injury layoff. His stock ball used to hit the six-, seven- metre mark from the batsman's stumps, and the ball hit the bat high. The length was never short enough to hit off the back foot (though the bounce would force the batsmen into playing horizontal-bat shots) and never full enough to be driven on the front foot. By consistently bowling that length, Bumrah not only kept batsmen quiet, he also made them anxious and impatient. White-ball cricket isn't about wicket preservation but about scoring runs, and if a long dry spell is forced upon you, you go hard at anything you think is hittable.
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While Bumrah took a lot of wickets with length balls, forcing batsmen into shots, he also took quite a few with the slightly full ones that came in to dismiss the batsman bowled or lbw, or went away, taking the edge. In 2020, his length has become a bit shorter on the whole.
The shorter the length, the less swing there is. There has been a significant decrease in how much the ball has been moving in the air for Bumrah of late, and that could possibly be because he is bowling shorter more often. Or maybe he shortened his length because the ball hasn't been swinging as much. Only he will know the reason why he has gone a little shorter this year.
The other factor that seems to be hurting his figures is the increased number of boundary balls he bowls. Scoring against Bumrah is tough for batsmen, and that fetches him a lot of wickets. There has been a slight increase in the number of boundary balls he has bowled in international cricket since his return from injury.
I once heard Zaheer Khan talk about not allowing the ego to come in the way when going through a lean patch as a bowler, for that makes your job tougher: you try harder to produce magic balls and end up conceding more boundaries. The trick, he said, was to stick to your plans and allow the dry spell to run its course.
There is no doubt that Bumrah will be at his wicket-taking best again, but this little rough patch has told us that he is also human - one who consistently did superhuman things - and is equally susceptible to going through a bad patch like lesser mortals every once in a while.