An hour before the match on Saturday, Jasprit Bumrah was bowling at the spring rubber stumps on one of the practice strips. There was no batsman, the stumps his only target. Bumrah was practising the yorkers.
One of the first balls he delivered pitched inches in front of the leg stump and missed. A whiff of dust rose from the Hampshire Bowl surface like steam from a kettle. It showed how hard and fast Bumrah had pitched the delivery. Immediately Bumrah walked to the exact spot where the ball had pitched and smoothed the turf. The next ball, and a few more after that, Bumrah would pitch accurately and bend the stumps back.
This art of bowling a yorker at will is something that makes Bumrah such a dangerous bowler. He is also a dangerous bowler because he keeps improving every spell, every match, every testing situation. That yorker came in handy against Afghanistan as Bumrah saved India from the biggest upset on the biggest stage. If Afghanistan had beaten India it would have been one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.
India entered the tournament with the tag of not just the No.2 ranked ODI country and one of the tournament favourites. They also had the most complete and dangerous bowling attack. In Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav India contain three bowlers that can determine the fate of the opponent in a matter of deliveries.
No other team in this tournament carries three strike bowlers who are as gifted and dangerous as these three men. Not Australia the defending champions. Not England, the hosts, the No.1 ODI team and the initial favorites. Not New Zealand, the perennial bridesmaids.
No other captain in this tournament has the luxury to indulge in such bowling riches as Virat Kohli. Against Afghanistan, Kohli needed his three musketeers to hit bullseye. And they did. Kuldeep might not have taken wickets, but his 10-over spell was effective because he kept the Afghanistan batsmen guessing with his left-arm wrist spin.
But it was Bumrah and Chahal who Kohli turned to frequently each time he found the match on a knife edge - which was virtually throughout the Afghanistan innings. Defending a small total on a big ground with a fast outfield meant the room for error was bare minimal.
Mohammed Shami and Bumrah bowled fierce spells from either end leaving Hazratullah Zazai and Gulbadin Naib restless. Zazai, one of the most powerful hitters in world cricket, buckled under pressure as he went for a mighty swing against Shami's angled delivery.
However, Naib in the company of Rahmat Shah, Afghanistan's best Test batsman, showed composure. They even attacked Hardik Pandya in taking 20 runs in his first 2 overs. However, Chahal and Kuldeep got into the act swiftly, posing difficult questions for the batsmen who were tentative to charge the spinners.
Jasprit Bumrah dives to catch Hashmatullah Shahidi off his own bowling Getty Images
Kohli brought back Hardik, who hit hard lengths into the body of Naib before he eventually top edged. Hardik then challenged new man Hashmatullah Shahidi by bowling a tight line and pitching on lengths where the batsman had to play. Hardik would end up bowling a maiden.
Kohli rotated the bowlers cleverly as the asking rate climbed to nearly six an over at the halfway stage with Afghanistan needing a further 134 runs. Surely not insurmountable. But could Rahmat and Shahidi sustain the growing pressure? Their partnership was steadily inching towards the 40-run mark when Bumrah returned.
In the past matches Kohli has also turned to Bumrah to deliver a mini two-over spell in the middle overs as a shock treatment against opposition. Bumrah bowled the first half of his second over back with a length and angle that was fuller. But then he bowled shorter to Rahmat, who top edged while attempting a pull. Two balls later Bumrah pitched a sharp short-of-a-length delivery measuring 87mph to surprise Shahidi who offered a meek return catch. The match suddenly turned on its head.
Two new batsmen at the crease meant Afghanistan had to restart. They once again had to find the resolve and the skills to keep rotating the strike. India were aware of the danger of Mohammad Nabi posed. Nabi has the experience and the patience as well as the power to hit the big strokes. However, India were aware as long as the run flow was slow, the pressure would always remain on Afghanistan.
With 40 runs needed from the last five overs, Kohli asked Chahal to bowl his final over. Rashid Khan reverse swept Chahal for a four, giving India a fright. But the next ball, Chahal spun a perfect leg break that started on a middle-stump line, urged Rashid to play and then drifted away nicely. It was 50mph. Having committed to the push Rashid found himself over balancing and beaten by the turn, giving enough time for MS Dhoni to whip off the bails. On a pitch where he had seen Rashid and the other two Afghan spinners bowl slower and slower, Chahal himself varied his pace to pose questions for the batsmen.
Kohli had worked out the plan accurately with Dhoni which involved Bumrah returning to finish his remaining two overs including bowling the penultimate over of the match. "In the end the communication was to finish him [Bumrah] off at 49 so that Shami has enough runs to defend in the last over. The plan worked out well today," Kohli said at the post-match presentation.
Bumrah, who was swung for a huge leg-side six by Nabi in the 47th over, would end up conceding just five runs in his final over, leaving Shami to defend 16 runs off the last. Shami was playing his first World Cup match but his opening spell, Kohli said, was the best by any of the bowlers on the day as he was relentless with that upright seam. He would seal Afghanistan's fate with three back-to-back reverse swinging yorker-length deliveries that would put him in history books with a hat-trick.
Yet it was Bumrah's three spells that denied Afghanistan a fairytale finish. Bumrah summed up succinctly the vital difference in India pipping Afghanistan. "What we wanted was to create pressure by taking the run rate high," he said. "As soon as the run rate goes up they'll create chances. That was the plan. And it was a good day. It worked.
"The wicket was getting slower and slower so with the older ball it was necessary to be accurate and bowl stump-to-stump. There is a bit of reverse swing as well so you rely on your yorkers. It was a tight game and I was backing my yorkers."
The beauty about Bumrah or Shami or Chahal, or even Hardik and Kuldeep, was they believed collectively and bowled accurately. When it mattered they proved India have the most dangerous bowling attack this World Cup.