Team India's bowling attack has been dealt a major blow with a back injury ruling Jasprit Bumrah out of the T20 World Cup. Among fast bowlers, Bumrah is third highest wicket-taker — behind Bhuvneshwar Kumar (56) and Deepak Chahar (28) — for India in T20Is in the last four years, with 27 wickets in 24 innings. More than the wickets column, Bumrah's staggering economy rate of 6.37 encapsulates the extent of redressal of the bat-ball balance India has to undergo in the wake of his injury.
And while India's death-overs bowling remains a concern, Bumrah's absence now threatens to also spring a leak in its PowerPlay (PP) bowling. India has tried 11 bowlers in the PowerPlay across the six T20Is against South Africa and Australia - Deepak Chahar, Arshdeep Singh, Axar Patel, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Harshal Patel, Umesh Yadav, Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj and Hardik Pandya.
Left-arm spinner Axar picked the most PowerPlay wickets in the series against Australia - 3 for 42 runs off 30 balls at 8.40 (second-best PP economy rate), conceding nine fours and zero sixes. In the rain-reduced eight-over shootout in Nagpur, Axar's two overs - one in the PowerPlay - went for only 13. He also won the Player-of-the-Series award. Although, statistically, Chahal had the best PowerPlay economy rate of eight in the Australia T20Is (8). But the sample size was too small (six balls in one innings).
With Bumrah not featuring in Australia, Axar could help prop up India's PowerPlay bowling, allowing Rohit Sharma to hold Arshdeep and Hardik back for later. Axar has 25 T20 wickets at 7.23 in the PowerPlay and 10 T20I wickets at 7.58 in the same phase.
The World Cup is happening in Australia, where the pitches traditionally have some encouragement for the quick bowlers upfront. A spinner bowling in the PowerPlay in Australia is rare. In the 2021 Big Bash League, Australia's domestic T20 League, the disparity between pace and spin in PowerPlay was evident. Pacers bowled 2460 balls in the PowerPlay and took 118 wickets at 7.56 rpo. Spinners though bowled just 420 balls and took 14 wickets at 7.81 rpo. The mandatory PowerPlay was of four overs in BBL 2021-22 with two overs power surge available later in the innings.
PowerPlay spin bowling in T20Is in Australia isn't a widely used tactic either. There have been only 28 bowlers who have done that. Among the top five spinners with most balls bowled inside the first six (in T20Is in Aus) are Ashwin (24 balls in three innings) and Washington Sundar (36 balls in three innings). Sri Lankan offie Maheesh Theekshana has the highest ball count in the PowerPlay (54 balls in four innings at a staggering economy rate of 5.22). But as rare a phenomenon as it may be, it is not unprecedented and there's a case for India using spinners in the PowerPlay.
There are also lessons to be learnt from the past, especially the success of right-arm off-spinning allrounder Dipak Patel at the top. New Zealand's decision to open the bowling with Dipak in the 1992 50-over World Cup was seen as an out-of-the-box plan at the time. Dipak's numbers in the seven games where he opened the bowling, in 10 overs each, were 1 for 36, 1 for 28, 1 for 19, 2 for 29, 2 for 26, 0 for 25 and 1 for 50. Although giving a spinner the new ball wasn't the norm in those days, Dipak's success offers India a blueprint.
India's first match of the World Cup is against Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on October 23. Pakistan has two right-handed openers in Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam. In T20I cricket in the last five years, Axar has gone at 9.60 runs per over vs left-handers but just 6.72 runs per over vs right-handers. So, Axar taking the new ball is also a distinct possibility when you look at the potential match-ups.
That said, his record against lefties means India could be forced to delay his entry points to engineer more favourable match-ups as evidenced during the third and final T20I against South Africa in Indore on Tuesday. With Rilee Roussouw and Quinton de Kock at the crease, Axar didn't come on to bowl until the 13th over, and ended up bowling just six balls for 13 runs. "Match-ups are important, they are important to us. Whether they are more important or not, it's for you guys to dig deep and look at what stats tell you about match-ups, about numbers of left-hand batsmen against left-arm spin. Maybe you might get some answers to that," said coach Rahul Dravid after the match.
"A lot of teams use match-ups, not only us. Like us, a lot of other teams look and delve into stats, into numbers," he added.
However, this doesn't mean matchups should always be altars on which overs are sacrificed. South Africa is also one of the five teams in India's group at the World Cup, and Tuesday's bashing would've given India a better idea of how best to use bowling resources in Perth.
Axar, a like-for-like replacement for Ravindra Jadeja, wasn't an automatic starter at the Asia Cup in the UAE. But the injury to Jadeja, coupled with the fact that Indian may play Dinesh Karthik ahead of Rishabh Pant as a death-overs specialist, increases the chances of Axar playing as a left-handed all-rounder. He can also be used as a floater to break the monotony of India's largely right-handed top seven batting line-up.
At a time when India is trying to make big scores batting first, and the death bowling is suffering, a good start with the ball upfront is more urgent than ever. It'll be interesting to see if India uses Axar as a PowerPlay enforcer with his arm balls, angles and changes of pace. An organised batting technique and the ability to bowl thrifty spin have made Axar a potent force in India's T20 arsenal.
[BBL stats breakdown courtesy Rajneesh Gupta]