"When you find your opponent's weak spot, hammer it."
As Bhuvneshwar Kumar sent Australia's captain Aaron Finch back to the hut for the third time in a row, the famous quote by the pioneering coach John Heisman struck the mind. It was yet another in-dipper that Finch had missed and it was yet another instance of his feet being all over the place.
Bhuvneshwar is not just a skillful bowler, he is a crafty one too. He is an astute thinker - a trait that has helped him become one of the best when it comes to setting up a batsman. He knew that Finch was susceptible to incoming deliveries and kept exploiting the weakness throughout the ODI series.
Ahead of the 3rd ODI, a woefully out-of-form Finch had conceded how he was a "little bit tentative in my thought process and in my footwork at times" and needed to get back to his natural free flowing game. And it did seem that Finch wasn't present on the field, physically as well as mentally.
Bhuvneshwar kept playing with his muddled mind. In the first ODI at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Finch faced four balls from Bhuvneshwar. He got an outside edge (along the ground) off two and missed an inswinger first up off which an LBW appeal was turned down by the umpire. It planted a decoy in his mind. Off the fourth delivery he faced, he wasn't sure whether to come forward or stay behind and was caught in no man's land. The ball jagged back and sneaked through his half-forward defence. Finch walked back puzzled trying to understand what kind of delivery it was.
Bhuvneshwar 1, Finch 0
In Adelaide, Bhuvneshwar tightened the noose and conceded just one run from the nine deliveries he bowled to Finch, who again looked uncomfortable against the inswingers. The pressure was built. The frustration was boiling. In Ravi Shastri's cliched world, you got the feeling that 'something's gotta give'. For some unfathomable reasons, Finch went for a glorious loft over the on side off the 10th ball he faced from Bhuvneshwar. Before he could bring his bat down, he had already heard the familiar sound of timber. The full inswinging delivery had sucked him in again. His feet were stuck on the crease, he had played the wrong line and was beaten by the extra swing. Finch shrieked, Bhuvneshwar celebrated with a half-hearted fist pump.
Bhuvneshwar 2, Finch 0
In Melbourne, Finch scratched around a bit longer. He was tentative and edgy. His mind was muddled, again. He shouldered arms to an in-cutter - the fourth ball he faced - off Bhuvneshwar. It was a misjudgment. The extra bounce saved him. A ball later, he edged one, it fell short of the slip. There were a couple of adjustments he made from the last two matches. This time he was standing a couple of yards outside the crease, getting more forward to negate the movement and shuffling a bit to disturb Bhuvneshwar's line. And for the first time, he unleashed a confident scoring shot but shuffling, walking down and flicking one through mid-wicket from outside off.
The mind games begin. Bhuvneshwar brings Dhoni up to the stumps. Finch responds with a drive through the covers and an all-run four. The next one straightens and catches Finch's edge but it flies away wide of first slip. All through this Bhuvi keeps mixing it to keep Finch guessing.
The mind games go a step ahead. Off the penultimate ball of the ninth over, MS Dhoni walks up to Bhuvneshwar and seems to ask him to alter his delivery stride and bowl from behind the crease so that Finch's forward movement and stride outside the crease is negated.
Bhuvneshwar bowls the next one from way behind the stumps, in fact, from beside the umpire. Finch is perplexed and pulls away at the last moment. The ball flies inches wide of the off stump. The umpire straightaway calls it a dead ball. Bhuvneshwar is not amused. "What for?" He asks the umpire. Kohli too joins the debate. The umpire calms him down. Bhuvneshwar smiles (more in disbelief) and walks back.
The seed of doubt is planted.
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 18, 2019
The next one is the sucker ball. That inswinger. Finch waits and is late in planting his front foot forward. It's a half stride and the ball has already hit the pads on the walk right in front. It's a nothing shot as he misses it comprehensively, unable to decide whether to defend or tuck it to the on side. The modus operandi had worked for the third time in a row. There were no exuberant celebrations. It was a routine walk in the park.
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 18, 2019
Bhuvneshwar 3, Finch 0
Finch's fall seemed inevitable almost every time he faced an incoming delivery. He was that vulnerable. The front foot went too much across too early and the head seemed to be falling. The gap between the bat and pad was bigger than the egos inside the BCCI administration.
"At the moment he's really searching for form and his footwork's all over the place," said former Test batsman Mark Waugh on Fox Cricket.
"He's trying to get forward but his balance doesn't even look right when he's trying to do that," he added.
There is no blinding revelation in the fact that Finch does have a problem with incoming deliveries. He started the tour watching his stumps cartwheel trying to unleash a booming drive off Ishant Sharma just his fourth ball of the Test series. And of the six dismissals in the Tests, four came off the incoming deliveries.
He has been dismissed either bowled or LBW in 5 of his last eight innings in international cricket and in 10 out of his last 12 ODIs.
Bhuvneshwar had found Finch's weak spot and he kept on hammering it. In the ODI series he bowled 37 balls at Finch, 30 of them were dots, he conceded just 16 runs, dismissed him every time, averaged 5.33 and conceded just one boundary (and an all-run four).
The Meerut pacer has now dismissed Finch joint-most number of times (5) in international cricket along with Imran Tahir, Adil Rashid, and Umesh Yadav.
The Finch vs Bhuvneshwar battle had a touch of inevitability to it, yet it was fascinating to watch, one’s guile and other’s struggle. After a mediocre last year ravaged by injuries, Bhuvneshwar is slowly getting back to his best and his performance in the ODI series once again showed he is a vital cog of the Indian pace attack for the World Cup.
As for Finch, he has spent the last few days reminding himself he is "still a very good player". This is true, but he should perhaps spend the next few days reminding himself that even the best have weak spots that, if not improved, will inevitably be relentlessly hammered.