After James Anderson, Bhuvneshwar Kumar is the most skilful swing bowler in the game. That, apparently, is not an opinion shared by the Indian captain or the Indian selectors, or they would not have omitted him for the second Test at Centurion. He was India's best bowler in Cape Town, especially in the first innings when he took four of the six wickets he captured in the game, and was only deprived of a five-wicket haul by a few dropped chances.
But it's even worse than that: according to Ishant Sharma, it was only injury that kept him out of the Cape Town Test. That means that Bhuvneshwar would not have played in the first game as well. And so for all his recent success, for all the skills he's displayed, Bhuvneshwar remains underappreciated. The seam bowler who ought to be the first on the team sheet, has, instead, been left on the sidelines, ferrying drinks and catering to the needs of the combatants on the field.
Now, there is nothing wrong with carrying drinks; most players have had to do it at some point. It's just that India's cause would be better served by having Bhuvneshwar running in with the new ball at the start of South Africa's innings.
In his last Test prior to Cape Town, against Sri Lanka in Kolkata, his eight wickets earned him the 'Man of the Match' award in a drawn game. Stunning figures of 4/8 from 11 overs in Sri Lanka's second innings almost resulted in an unlikely victory in a game badly affected by rain.
"I am surprised not to find Bhuvi in the playing XI today," tweeted VVS Laxman on the first day of the Centurion Test. "In the first test, he took the most number of wickets (6 wickets) showing skill in using the new ball & batted quite well showing patience and resilience. Am I missing something here?" The great batsman was not the only nonplussed onlooker.
Of all the fast bowlers available to India, Bhuvneshwar is the most likely to make inroads with the new ball. In omitting him from the side, India chose, unwisely, to diminish their new-ball threat. If there is any swing on offer — and there always is to some degree with a new ball — he is the bowler most likely to exploit it. Perhaps Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram would have still have constructed or even bettered their vital 85-run first-innings opening partnership had Bhuvneshwar played; chances are, however, they'd have had a stiffer challenge than they had in his absence.
Armed with a new ball, quite a number of fast bowlers are able to swing it away from the right-hander. Not many, however, are capable of regularly swinging it in as well. "God gave me the outswinger," offered Indian great Kapil Dev, "I had to develop the rest."
Dale Steyn's outswing with the new ball was both wicked and delicious. Occurring terrifyingly late, it has been, for my money, the most potent delivery in the game, and was substantially responsible for the South African boasting the best strike rate (41.4) in Test history for bowlers with over 200 wickets.
"Did you at any stage worry about losing your outswinger?" Steyn was asked in an interview with The Cricket Monthly. "No, never," came his reply. "That is the biggest thing I have got: my away-swinger. Hopefully, it never goes. I don't think about fast bowling a lot. I just do it."
As a swing bowler of quality, Anderson has had few peers. His skills with the new ball are phenomenal and wide-ranging. Whenever the Lancastrian hangs up his boots, the mantle as cricket's foremost swing bowler will likely pass to Bhuvneshwar. Time and again, the Indian paceman has shown that his skills as a bowler of conventional swing are considerable, and is likely only behind those of the Englishman.
A tight, controlled approach to the wicket culminates into a simple, repeatable action delivering the ball with a high arm and an impeccably upright seam. Out and in-swing are bowled without much hint of a change of action. If in rhythm and on song, even the best combatants of swing bowling will have a dickens-of-a-time keeping him out.
The 27-year-old showed himself an expert of the art from his very first foray into the international arena. It was December 2012 and the game was a T20 International against Pakistan in Bengaluru. India were defending 133, and though Pakistan won, Bhuvneshwar gave them a heck of a scare, finishing with 3/9 off a four-over allotment.
Opening the bowling, he used a number of out-swingers to widen the opening between the left-handed Nasir Jamshed's bat and pad before snaking an in-swinger through the gap to remove the batsman's off-stump with the last ball of the over. And if that were not remarkable enough, he dished out similar treatment to the right-handed Umar Akmal, who had a hard time locating a few outswingers, only to be bowled by a huge inswinging delivery.
In between those two dismissals, he accounted for Ahmed Shehzad with a peach of an out-swinger that the batsman could only edge to the wicket-keeper. It was an exhibition of bowling not dissimilar to his recent efforts at Kolkata; an exhibition not many bowlers would have been capable of producing.
Swing, to the fast bowler, is frequently like a fickle love interest — fawning all over you one day, and just not that into you the next. There is mystery about the art, thus allowing for all kinds of theories and practices. Many are convinced, for example, that environmental conditions such as cloud-cover and humidity affect swing. Scientists have done studies, however, that have shown that the weather has no effect on swing.
One early contention was that the Meerut pacer was largely a passenger on the days when swing failed to show up. Striving for pace can be a mistake. Bowlers sometimes lose swing in their search for speed. But if we are to go by his recent display then Bhuvneshwar seems to have gotten quicker while retaining his ability to elicit swing. This means he now has other arrows in his quiver, for whereas he was thought to be not much of a threat when there is no swing on offer, batsmen will now have to contend with increased pace as well.
India needs to repose more faith in their premier swing exponent. A few months ago, after a particularly distinguished ODI performance against Australia, Indian captain Virat Kohli remarked that Bhuvneshwar was, at times, "unplayable". They need to trust that he will be able to perform like that regularly. He is India's most potent weapon with the new ball. They should have him in the team for every game in every format. Makes no sense keeping one of your best soldiers off the battlefield.