Think Bhuvneshwar Kumar and England, and the mind goes back to India’s tour of 2014 here. The medium-pacer swung the ball — red and white — all summer, almost on a string. It wasn’t a trip to remember for the Indian team, not in the Test arena at least, but Bhuvneshwar stood out for his consistent display across formats.
So when the 2017 Champions Trophy finally arrived, you probably would have thought: "Ah, Bhuvneshwar bowling in England, I will have some of that". However, the past two weeks have been very different from what we had seen three years ago, or even during India’s practice games at The Oval. The white ball simply hasn’t swung.
How many deliveries do you remember from Bhuvneshwar that have actually moved like they do when he has them on a string? Two, maybe three, is the answer, and that is being generous. The second delivery he bowled to Azhar Ali in Birmingham, shaping away from the batsman; the first ball to Niroshan Dickwella at The Oval, just enough movement to beat the batsman’s waft through air; the last ball of the first over to Hashim Amla, once again at the Oval, just moving away slightly and inducing a proper edge that fell short of slip due to lack of pace.
“There is not much swing available and it is tough to pinpoint why the ball is not swinging this time in England. The wickets are not generally this hard during this time of the year, and during the 2013 Champions Trophy and even in the 2014 tour, the wickets were softer, allowing for more swing,” said Bhuvneshwar, after the win against South Africa on Sunday.
Hard wickets mean ample bounce from the batsmen, and they have made merry in this tournament, like they usually do in the shorter formats. Add to it, a lack of movement and the small fact that India needed to drop a pacer for this must-win game against South Africa. The sky was clear blue, the sun was out, and it was a shiny day when Virat Kohli decided that he wanted to play Bhuvneshwar ahead of both Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami against South Africa.
Chop and change has been the norm for Indian pacers ever since Kohli assumed full control of the Indian team. First, it came through in the Test arena, wherein he has held the reins longer. It could particularly be seen in the long 2016-17 season gone by, as the Indian skipper shuffled his fast bowlers at every opportunity possible against West Indies, New Zealand, England and Australia.
Bhuvneshwar played the least number of matches among this bunch, including Ishant Sharma, Shami and Umesh. There isn’t much wrong to find in here, for Kohli has always thought long and hard about opposition and conditions. In India, you cannot really play Bhuvneshwar unless there aren’t other options available. The one occasion when conditions trumped all of that — on a lively track in Kolkata against New Zealand — Umesh promptly made way for the swing bowler.
He finds more use overseas, of course, and the West Indies’ tour was a sharp pointer in this scheme of things. St Lucia was tailor-made for Bhuvneshwar, as was Kolkata, and he duly delivered five-wicket hauls in both games. The surprising bit came in thereafter. He was handed the new ball against England in Mumbai and then against Bangladesh in Hyderabad, on hard decks completely different from the ones he had been picked for. Herein, a new aspect of Bhuvneshwar’s ability emerged.
On a flat track that afforded very little movement even in his initial spell on day one, Bhuvneshwar brought forth reverse swing as an added weapon in his armoury. Along with Ishant and Umesh, he put on a show of moving the old ball almost as well as the new one, if not better. Why did this aspect stand out? Well, Bhuvneshwar wasn’t the quickest bowler, and you need pace to be able to impart reverse on the old red ball. The increase in pace — by atleast 4-5 mph — was remarkable.
Post the 2014-15 Australia tour, Bhuvneshwar spent considerable time away from the game working on his fitness. After never ending spells in England and Australia, that season had broken his body, and for good reason. The concept of workload management was totally lost on the Indian think-tank, and who could blame them, as they were at the fag end of a long overseas international schedule. This is what long arduous tours do — they break down Indian fast bowlers, and Bhuvi was the latest entry in that list.
His return to full fitness — and peak form — stands out, then. Unlike, say, Shami, who still struggles at times from the after-effects of his long-term injury that occurred almost in parallel with that of Bhuvneshwar. Why is this aspect important at this point, though, when India are busy competing in the 2017 Champions Trophy, limited-overs cricket that is? The answer can be found in the aforementioned instances that highlighted the lack of swing throughout this tournament.
“When the ball doesn’t swing then you have to alter the length. You have to bowl a bit back of the length. Normally, we bowl fuller lengths to get wickets but here we are holding the length back,” said Bhuvneshwar, post the game on Sunday.
For someone who moves the white ball under lights in the sub-continent (26 wickets in the recent IPL season), an obvious lack of movement should have been a massive handicap. Instead, Bhuvneshwar has come into his own with his clever variations in pace as well as his steady line and length. Just consider how he bowled to Hashim Amla on Sunday.
The Indian plan was not to give runs, and both Amla and Quinton de Kock were tied down. In particular Amla, who likes to cut the ball short of length, was denied space on either off or leg side. Bhuvneshwar’s subtle variation in pace — ranging from 78 to 87 mph — didn’t allow him to settle down. Never mind their opening stand of 76 runs, the runs hadn’t flowed, thus squeezing the middle-order and etching out those two run-outs that eventually changed the game.
Ideally, Kohli would have picked Yadav or Shami as his first-choice fast bowler, for their ability to move the ball as well as using the bounce on English wickets on account of pace. At present though, with flat pitches laid out in favour of the batsmen, it is imperative to hold a steady line, not allowing batsmen any room to work with.
Need of the hour was an all-weather bowler then, with the Indian captain knowing fully well that Bhuvneshwar was the perfect man for this job. And the medium pacer — or should I say pacer — didn’t disappoint.