The sight of Bhuvneshwar Kumar doing his test run-up to the bowling crease through the T20I and ODI series against England was a sight for sore eyes. He does it by habit. He runs through the bowling crease making sure everything is right before he starts bowling again. India skipper Virat Kohli, in turn, often just watches him go through the motions. He doesn’t tell Bhuvneshwar what to do because he knows the pacer will almost invariably pick the right option.
And if one wanted further evidence of what he brings to the table, one just has to see how the series-deciding third ODI panned out. In the first ODI, England’s openers Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow had put on 135 runs and in the second ODI, they had put together 110 runs. The good starts had taken the pressure off the batsmen lower down the order and put it right back on India.
So even though India had put 329 on the board, they knew that early wickets were the need of the hour. Kohli needed Bhuvi to prove his mettle once again and the pacer did just that.
The first ball was hit for four through the covers by Roy with immaculate timing. The second ball was hit straight down the ground for another four. A dot ball was next before a two. Then, Bhuvi got his line wrong. The ball was moving into Roy’s pads and the batsman was upto the challenge. He clipped it to the square leg boundary. Five balls, 14 runs. England were off to the races.
But then off the sixth ball of the over, Bhuvi got his line right. Roy was unable to pick which way the ball was going to swing and was clean bowled by an inswinger.
Now, Ben Stokes, who had hammered a brilliant 99 in the second ODI, came to the wicket. To negate Bhuvneshwar’s swing, many batsmen stand out of their crease. So Rishabh Pant moved up to the wickets to make sure that the batsmen were pinned back.
And Bhuvneshwar responded by bowling another inswinger to trap the dangerous Bairstow leg before the wicket. Once again, the batsman couldn’t read which way the ball would swing because Bhuvbeshwar’s wrist action gives away few clues and he gets the ball to move both ways from similar areas.
The medium pacer could have made it three wickets in three overs but Hardik Pandya failed to hold on to a pretty regulation catch from Stokes. Kohli gave the 31-year-old another couple of overs but he had already done the trick for his team.
The first five balls of his spell had gone for 14/0. The next 25 balls had gone for just 11 runs and yielded two wickets too. The opening spell put India right back in it.
He later picked up another wicket – sending back the dangerous Moeen Ali – to finish the match with bowling figures of 10-0-42-3.
In a series where the opposition scored at a rate of 6.70 runs per over, Bhuvneshwar’s economy was 4.65 and this wasn’t the first time he did it right either.
But the pacer had been missing from action for far too long. He had endured a wretched time since 2018 due to injuries that kept piling up one after another. In England 2018, Bhuvneshwar’s stiff back aggravated into a full-blown injury and ruled him out of the five Tests. Then, he suffered a hamstring injury during the 2019 World Cup before he had to undergo surgery for a sports hernia. Then, just when it looked like he was back, four games into IPL 2020, he suffered a hip injury.
To put things in perspective, while India was making history in Australia and elsewhere, Bhuvi was just trying to fight his way back to full fitness:
Last T20 before England series: 11 Dec 2019
Last ODI before England series: 14 Aug 2019
Last Test: 3rd Test, Johannesburg, Jan 24 - 27 2018
It was a long time away from the game and such breaks can sometimes derail the momentum a bowler has built and rob them of rhythm. It can plant seeds of doubt in their minds. In his post-match comments, it was clear that Bhuvneshwar was relieved to have come out of the series without picking up another injury.
“I’m just happy that I went through the entire series pretty well (talking about his recent injury issues), hopefully, I will go on and do well in the upcoming series,” said the pacer.
He later added: “I have stopped making long term plans as in the past when I have done that, things haven’t gone in my favour. Be it because of injury or form.”
Now, Bhuvneshwar doesn’t have Jasprit Bumrah’s awkward action or Mohammed Shami’s slingy pace or Ishant Sharma’s height but the manner in which he reads the batsmen is second to none.
It is fascinating to watch him run in and bowl in the mid-130s and cause so much trouble for the batsmen. He can swing the ball and has many slower balls but more importantly, he knows when to bowl what and there are very few bowlers in world cricket who can consistently out-think the batsmen like him.
It is this ability that makes him vital for India at the start of the innings and at the death. He offers something very different. He doesn’t look to blow away the opposition, rather he just makes the batsmen do the most difficult things and that is how he has come to be a bowler that Kohli trusts in difficult situations in the shorter formats.
Bhuvneshwar should be an important cog for India come the T20 World Cup later this year and given that his quality isn’t a question, the key, for him, will not so much be how he bowls but whether he is able to stay fit through the IPL.
“Workload management is something I will be seriously monitoring along with the team management,” said Bhuvneshwar. “Since I was unfit for a long time, I had to ensure that I put a lot of emphasis on being fit.”
India won the T20I series and the ODI series but there is little doubt that one of the biggest gains of the series was the return of Bhuvneshwar. And now that he is back, he has to find a way to stay there.