You knew it was a leg-cutter as soon as you saw it. The slight flick in the release, the way Steve Smith was squared up by it as it hit his pad, those were telltale signs. If you wanted to be sure, the DRS replay confirmed it; while they checked for the no-ball, from side-on you could see the index and middle fingers as the hand slid across the side of the ball.
With that leg cutter, Bhuvneshwar Kumar broke what I call Smith’s Law: Don’t bowl on Steve’s pads. Don’t be fooled by his initial movement that has him standing almost on off-stump. Don’t get drawn in and try to get him out LBW, he will merrily flick you for runs.
And yet, Bhuvneshwar got Smith out LBW. In 110 matches spanning nine years before this, Smith had been dismissed LBW only 11 times in ODIs. Bowling coaches had given up on his pads, and instead, focussed on the edge of his bat. Few plan for a leg-before, fewer still hope it will come off. Bhuvneshwar executed it, even after Smith had been around for a run-a-ball 69.
But then few expected Bhuvneshwar to play at all.
A year ago, Bhuvneshwar seemed locked in as one half of India’s opening combination in cahoots with Jasprit Bumrah. But Bumrah’s well-deserved rest after the Tests in Australia opened the door for a rejuvenated Mohammed Shami, who did everything right. He edged past Khaleel Ahmed, fended off Navdeep Saini, and even seemed to have pipped Bhuvneshwar, who had a middling IPL 2019.
Bhuvneshwar took 13 wickets in the IPL at an average of 35.46, his second-worst returns in the last six years in terms of wickets. At one point, his death bowling seemed to have lost its edge, with his economy rate in that period almost 14. Shami, on the other hand, had his best ever IPL season, taking 19 wickets at an average of 24.68. All the talk was of how his extra pace and superhuman seam presentation would be useful on the flat tracks expected in the World Cup.
The two warm-up games did little to inspire confidence in Bhuvneshwar. He was given the new ball in the first, but only bowled four wicketless overs. He was bumped down to first-change in the second, and still hunted for his first wicket on English soil this summer. Fortunately for him, Shami was wicketless in both games as well. In what seemed like a straight shoot-out between the two, neither’s guns fired.
But full credit to the team management for managing recency bias and rewarding consistent performances. And on closer examination, Bhuvneshwar’s ODI record is slightly better than Shami’s this year. Both have taken 19 wickets in nearly the same number of games, but Shami averages 26.42, and Bhuvneshwar a significantly lower 22.36. Another factor is Bhuvneshwar’s stellar record in England. His Test exploits are well known, but even in white-ball cricket, England has been a happy hunting ground for him, with 23 wickets at an average of 26.56 as opposed to a career average of almost 35. His inclusion also provides a bridge between India’s batting strength and the tail; Shami after Hardik Pandya is quite a steep drop in ability.
None of this would have mattered if Bhuvneshwar didn’t do well once given a chance. But on Sunday, as the Oval saw 668 runs scored at the rate of 6.7 runs per over, Bhuvneshwar was the only bowler from either side to go at just five. His three late wickets were not cheap scalps; just as he did against South Africa, he began by removing the highest scorer in the innings and quickly took another. His dismissal of Marcus Stoinis will hearten Kohli — on a day when swing was hard to come by, he found seam movement as late as the 40th over on a dry pitch, getting the ball to jag back into the hapless batsman.
“If Shami plays it has to be proper overcast conditions and the pitch has to offer a lot,” said Kohli on the decision to play Bhuvneshwar ahead of Shami. “(With) Bhuvi, you can’t take his performances for granted in the one-day format. He’s a champion with the new ball and with the old ball as well, those two wickets in the over was a little bit of a game changer.”
With five wickets in the two games, Bhuvneshwar has put to bed any doubts about his inclusion. The only concern is that he hasn’t picked up wickets with the new ball on this trip yet. But like Shikhar Dhawan, Bhuvneshwar’s average and economy rate are significantly lower in ICC tournaments, especially for those played in England, so let’s not get too worried. Playing his second World Cup, Bhuvneshwar has a chance to help India improve on their 2015 showing. Then, he warmed the bench for most of the tournament. This time, he’s in the driver’s seat.