As Virat Kohli spelled out his excitement for the raging green-top in Perth for the second Test against Australia, a look at India's 13-man shortlist made it clear that the visitors were going to field a four-pronged pace attack. Yet, when the playing eleven emerged the next morning, Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s name was missing.
Of all the pitches in the world of cricket, when you see a heavy layering of green grass on the pitch, the first name on India’s team-sheet ought to be Kumar. Such is his prowess with the ball, red or white, in getting movement off the surface, and in the air, when conditions are just right.
Even so, with his name missing from the Perth Test’s team sheet, there was only one conclusion to be derived – he wasn't fully fit. And it is something that Kumar himself confirmed during this current ODI series. ‘I was fit but I couldn’t say that I was 100 percent. Because in Test matches, it’s a five-day game, so I really didn’t know I would be able to go through that thing,’ he had said before the Adelaide ODI.
Let it be said here that India have missed Kumar’s services in 2018-19; particularly in England, wherein they went through the five-Test series without him and ended up with a 4-1 defeat. And the pain of that absence could be felt in the third ODI at Bristol, when a half-fit Kumar, still suffering from sore back, lumbered up to bowl in the bilateral ODI series’ finale. He could barely touch 130 kmph all afternoon.
As India lost, Kumar proved ineffectual in that game. And one cannot be sure what was more worrisome at that point in time — his reduced pace, down to the 120s, or the fact that workload management from the BCCI left a lot to be desired once again. Of course, it didn’t come as a surprise when, subsequently, he was ruled out of the entire Test series and returned to India to recover as well as regain full fitness.
Here, let us chart the amount of cricket Kumar has played in recent times. Post the 2017 Champions Trophy, he has played in 33 ODIs, which is 76 percent of all ODIs India has played till the second ODI at Adelaide in the current Australian series. He has also played in 18 out of 29 T20Is, while the Test count is comparatively low — only three Tests until January 2017.
Time and again, India have rested Kumar from the longer format to ease him off rigours of endless limited-overs’ cricket. It was a cycle that coincided with the experimental/building phase towards the 2019 World Cup, and Kumar found himself reduced to a two-format bowler. He didn’t play in Sri Lanka and only featured in one Test against them at home when conditions in Kolkata were wet and green.
In South Africa (2018), he played only in the first and third Tests, in swing/seam-friendly conditions at Cape Town and Johannesburg. More than format-based, he has increasingly become a 'conditions' bowler for India in Test cricket. One isn’t sure whether there are any complaints here, particularly as he would have played a part in England.
That he didn’t, again, is the crux of the matter. Kumar’s backbreaking participation in limited-overs games has meant that workload management has gone out of the window. He, along with Jasprit Bumrah, featured in the T20I series against Ireland and England last summer. The latter got injured in Dublin and missed the first two Tests in England. Kumar, meanwhile, had his first back problem during the T20I series in England and thereafter it escalated.
Reports of his back problems first emerged during the IPL last year, where he participated in 12 matches for Sunrisers Hyderabad. From one ODI series to the next, from one T20Is series to the next, Kumar was overworked and over bowled until the 2018 summer.
It poses certain questions about an improper balance between rest and usage of bowling resources. The Indian team management hesitated in experimenting with fast bowlers while Kumar and Bumrah kept on playing almost every game. Where is the bowler management in endless bilateral series, grounding down your primary pacers, and then waiting for them to fight fitness issues and niggles throughout the remainder of the season?
While the UP pacer was over bowled previously, on return from injury in September 2017, he hasn’t had enough game time. He returned for the Asia Cup in the UAE and then played three ODIs against West Indies, before being rested for the Australian trip. Here, he played three T20Is, the last of which ended in the third week of November. For the next seven weeks, Kumar waited for Australia ODI series to begin, even as he slowly built up his fitness in training sessions.
What’s missing from him at the moment is rhythm – at Sydney, he was lacklustre and appeared rusty because of not having enough game time previously. In Adelaide, he looked like he had warmed up, but again not quite fully. More game time is needed, and in the build-up to the World Cup, there are another 11 ODIs and five T20Is to be played yet. Will those be enough?
“Match rhythm is totally different when it comes to bowling. I was trying everything to be in rhythm in the nets. But it can’t be 100 percent when you compare to a match. It wasn’t great in the last match (in Sydney) but it wasn’t bad as well. It can improve, as the matches will go on,” said Kumar.
There is no doubt that along with Bumrah, Kumar will spearhead India’s bowling hopes for the upcoming English summer. The need of the hour right now is enough game time for all the batsmen and bowlers, especially those who have missed out on active cricket during the last six weeks. Kumar features prominently among these few names.
More so, however, there is a need for workload management. If there is a dead rubber, maybe Kumar can sit that one out. Or perhaps, he — and his franchise — can be persuaded to sit out a part of the 2019 IPL season. There is no existing policy from the BCCI to protect their most precious resources from IPL’s rigours, and compensating them financially instead.
This uncomfortable aspect will be tested when the IPL season and the ODI World Cup come along in quick succession this 2019 summer. Indian fans will be praying hard to see a fit and raring-to-go Kumar emerge through it all.