The current Indian team can rightfully boast of its vast pool of fast bowlers and even contemplate rotating them. However, irrespective of the permutations and combinations of the attack, the one common and vital cog, across all formats, is ace pacer Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
The wiry 28-year-old Uttar Pradesh bowler possesses amazing skills which massively complement his intrinsic knowledge on how to construct an over, ball-by-ball. This might sound simple, but what goes into it isn’t.
It requires an inherent, god-given talent to gauge the pitch, conditions, batsman’s state of mind, situation of the match ball after ball and come up with suitable responses.
Of course most international bowlers would have the acumen to suss all these out. But what makes Bhuvneshwar special is the ability to not just know what to do, but have the skill to deliver it.
The second characteristic is a massive asset, for it hinges on the bowler’s state of mind, confidence, intuition, skill set and fitness. It is in these areas that the Uttar Pradesh fast medium bowler towers over everyone else and remains the first choice bowler across formats.
It is not that Bhuvneshwar burst onto the international scene blessed with these traits. He has consciously worked at widening his repertoire. On Sunday evening, after bowling India to one of their most impressive wins, in the first T20I of the series against South Africa, he acknowledged that the ‘knuckle ball’, which yielded such terrific results, had become part of his arsenal only recently.
“I’ve been working on it for the past one year. You need to come up with newer deliveries to take wickets in the T20 format as the batsmen are after you all the time,” Bhuvneshwar said in the post-match interview.
Subsequently he spoke of managing workloads, his method of practising and the difficulty to deliver in all three formats in a single series.
“Fitness is the key and managing workloads is part of it,” he said.
Bhuvneshwar was always known to be a prodigious swing bowler, much like another former Indian medium pacer hailing from the same district of Meerut, Praveen Kumar. But that was so in conventional red-ball cricket.
The red ball is far more conducive to swing bowling and Bhuvneshwar was acknowledged as one of the leading exponents of the art. It helped that his wrist position was brilliant, for this in turn helped him to maintain the seam in an upright position to facilitate swing.
But Bhuvneshwar, even as he prised out batsmen with his late swing in the 2014 series in England, realised that his erstwhile speed of around 120 kmph was not good enough for white-ball cricket, specifically as the white ball rarely swung beyond the opening overs.
He worked on his pace which, naturally, was tied to fitness, shoulder power, balance and rhythm. His conscious efforts bore fruit and within a couple of years he was consistently clocking 130 to 140 kmph. Additionally, he had worked on control over variations, which included a variety of slower deliveries, including the more recent knuckle ball, yorkers and angles.
Of course, T20s enlarged his scope to outwit batsmen. On his debut against Pakistan in 2012, he had stunned the cricketing world by picking up three top order batsmen for just nine runs. That was a forerunner to what was to come.
In later years, as he honed his skills, his bowling in T20 cricket improved by leaps and bounds. For two successive years, he won the Purple Cap in the Indian Premier League (IPL) for maximum scalps (23 wickets in 2016 and 26 wickets in 2017).
Bhuvneshwar admitted that he loved the challenge of bowing in tough situations, especially during the powerplay overs at the start when just two fielders are permitted outside the circle and during the death when batsmen try to smash each and every delivery.
“I love to bowl in tough situations. When I do well in those situations I get a real thrill. I have been doing it for some time now and really enjoy it,” he said.
That says a lot about the character of the man. He does not shy away from bowling in tough situations but instead looks forward to it as an opportunity to steal a march over the batsmen.
On Sunday, he bowled a variety of slower deliveries and knuckle balls to become only the second Indian after Yuzvendra Chahal to grab five wickets in a T20I match. His haul of five for 24 was instrumental in India's 28-run win. He bowled three overs during the powerplay and plucked out two top batsmen to leave the South African innings floundering. Later, when the Proteas were 154 for four in 17 overs and looked like mounting a serious assault on the target of 204, he came back to dismiss the dangerous Reeza Hendricks (70), Heinrich Klassen (16) and Chris Morris (0) to leave the South African innings in disarray.
“We saw the way they bowled. On this pitch you had to mix it up. I looked to take the pace off the ball and it paid off,” was Bhuvneshwar's simple way of surmising his terrific impact on the game.
Indeed that is what the peerless Bhuvneshwar has come to be in Indian cricket: a massive impact player across all formats.