Jasprit Bumrah has played only five of India's 30 T20Is in 2022. India may be quite accustomed to not having their attack leader in the playing eleven of late, but it still wouldn't have prepared them for the potential jolt of not having the 28-year-old around for the T20 World Cup. Even if he wasn't playing matches on a regular basis, all of India's planning over the past 12 months would have taken place with the assumption that he will be standing on top of his mark when they take the field against Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on 23 October.
But what if Bumrah is out of the T20 World Cup as reports suggest? Who will the captain turn to when a wicket is needed? Who will bowl the difficult overs at the death? Who will take charge and demand the ball when a game is on the line?
Skipper Rohit Sharma and the team management will grapple with these questions over the coming days. At the moment, there are no clear-cut answers.
Among the pace bowlers that were selected for the T20 World Cup, Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar were considered to be certain starters in the eleven while the choice of the third seamer seemed to boil down to a contest between Harshal Patel and Arshdeep Singh.
If Bumrah isn't available, though, all their bowling plans will have to be reworked. Mohammed Shami and Deepak Chahar were named in the standbys when the India squad for the T20 World Cup was announced. With Chahar possessing similar attributes to Bhuvneshwar, Shami may get the nod given his experience unless India look for someone outside the standby list. Shami, too, hasn't had game time of late. He was named in the squad for the series against Australia and South Africa, but he's been down with Covid-19. Although he has now tested negative, he will go into the World Cup if selected without any competitive matches under his belt.
Where Bumrah stands out among any of his contemporaries is in his nerveless mastery in the death overs. While India may still find other bowlers who do a job with the new ball, there was a certain assuredness with which you could hand the ball to Bumrah in the slog overs or when a game is on a knife-edge. Even the knowledge that Bumrah had a couple of overs up his sleeve would sometimes work in India's favour. That Bumrah has an economy rate of 6.62 and a strike rate of 18.3 over 60 T20Is typifies his sustained excellence.
Against South Africa in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, India could take some solace from coping well in the absence of Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar – who is resting for the series – coasting to an eight-wicket victory on the back of Arshdeep taking 3/32 in his four overs. On a pitch that provided generous assistance to the pacers, Arshdeep demonstrated a hitherto unseen facet of his bowling. His notable IPL performances have largely centred on his sound execution in the death overs, but the 23-year-old displayed in ample measure that he also has the tools to swing the new ball either way and provide breakthroughs. He bowled three of his overs in the powerplay as a result, providing a versatility that Harshal perhaps doesn't.
"We practice for every situation during our training sessions. Our job is to adapt to every situation and do what the team asks for," Arshdeep told reporters after the game. "Today, it was more about the new ball. The focus is on hitting the right areas during the powerplay. I look to get some swing early on. I am trying to make sure that the lines are good."
While Arshdeep's new-ball display on Wednesday is a welcome sight for India, his core strength of nailing yorkers at the death becomes paramount without Bumrah around. KL Rahul, who captained Arshdeep at Punjab Kings in IPL, seems confident that Arshdeep can deliver.
"He is growing with each game. I have seen him at close quarters in the IPL," Rahul told the host broadcaster after the match. "He is not afraid of the big stage, bowling to big batters. This season what he did for his franchise was phenomenal. He is carrying the confidence and doing the job for the team. You always want a left-arm seamer in your line-up."
Harshal, too, will have to step up. Since recovering from a rib injury that sidelined him from the Asia Cup, he has conceded runs at an economy of 10.41 in four matches. Given that he has been picked on the basis of being a specialist in that phase, he will know that he has to be better than what those figures suggest.
The pressure, though, will be felt most acutely by Bhuvneshwar. The 32-year-old swing bowler will have to take over as the leader of the attack and deliver without fail game after game. Unlike the last T20 World Cup when he was perhaps not at his best physically, he has played 24 T20Is this year – more than any Indian player – and is currently doing conditioning-related work at the NCA. He seems to have regained his sharpness with the new ball, but his predictability in the death overs is an area of concern, highlighted by an overall economy of 13 versus the Aussies.
Over the next few weeks, India will ponder and deliberate over the combinations while hoping that the bowlers available combine to become more than the sum of their parts.