Among the first evident changes in the Virat Kohli-era in Test cricket has been the emphasis on quicker bowlers. Earlier, in home Tests the focus remained on the spinners who toiled endlessly while a sole seamer bowled a few overs with the new ball, rested in the outfield, drank fluids, rested more, drank even more, and bowled as dusk approached if at all the spinners hadn't run through the opposition by then.
But Virat Kohli's aggressive mentality and in-the-face approach means that no player in the team is there just to fill the numbers. He is expressive and expects his players to reciprocate.
This kind of template and focus on pace meant that a newer generation of 140kmph+ seamers thrived. The likes of Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami have been beneficiaries of a system with a more profound insistence on pace.
This, combined with the five bowler strategy and importance on all-rounders signified limited opportunities for the medium pacers in the country.
As such Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the swing bowler from Meerut, was forgotten for a period of time. Despite performing admirably well each time he played, Bhuvneshwar often found himself behind Shami, Umesh and Ishant Sharma in the queue.
But such is his attitude that nothing at all stopped him from realising his goals. Being a quick learner, the swing bowler identified that he needed to work on his pace to stay in the fray.
“If I have to put it down to one moment, I would say it was because of Test cricket in India. When the wickets are assisting spinners, it is the fast bowlers who get preferred in the team instead of medium pacers. That was the main reason behind my decision to up the pace. I realised if I wanted to play Test cricket in India, I had to gain pace but not at the cost of swing. I was always clear I wanted to be known as a swing bowler but someone who could bowl decent pace. I worked with the same objective”, Bhuvneshwar had said in an interview earlier this year.
He worked with Shankar Basu, team's strength and fitness conditioning coach, and Bharat Arun, the bowling coach, and indulged in power training that helped him gain pace without compromising on his key skill, swing.
Today, the medium-pacer who bowled occasionally in the 130kmph range has vanished and this rejuvenated fast bowler is capable of consistently clocking 135kmph+ with the odd ball breaching the 140kmph barrier.
Yet, opportunities in the longer formats of the game have been few and far between. Of course there was the bad luck with injury ahead of the Indore Test against New Zealand last year. But when he returned from the break, Bhuvneshwar once again found himself on the sidelines despite picking up a five-for in his last Test innings.
It is mind boggling to see that he has played just seven Tests since the start of 2016 whereas Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav have played more than double the number of matches while Ishant Sharma has also played nine.
Interestingly, none of the other three has recorded a five-wicket haul during this time while Bhuvneshwar has two to his name, and is the only Indian seamer to have picked up a five-for since 2016 in Test cricket. Be it averages, strike rate or economy, Bhuvneshwar has been a notch above the rest of the competitors.
On a green-tinged Kolkata surface against Sri Lanka in the ongoing first Test of the series, India picked Bhuvneshwar in the starting XI and he immediately repaid the faith, nipping out the Sri Lankan openers within the first ten overs and giving the hosts an early advantage after they were bowled-out for 172 in the first innings.
He ended the innings with four wickets to his name, but more importantly, showed that he was much more than a mere swing bowler. When it wasn't moving in the air, Bhuvneshwar made the ball seam around and when he did find swing, he showcased his outstanding James Anderson-like skills by swinging in and out effortlessly.
The manner in which he sent back Dasun Shanaka on Day 4 was a lesson in swing bowling for youngsters aspiring to learn the art. New to the crease, Shanaka was yet to get used to the seam and swing, and Bhuvneshwar did the perfect one-two trick. He shaped a couple of balls away from the Lankan all-rounder before bringing one back into him. Caught in two minds, Shanaka offered no shot and was rapped on the pads right in front of the stumps.
Deapite all his heroics in this Test, one wonders if Bhuvneshwar would have played ahead of Ishant Sharma or an extra spinner if India hadn't laid out such a grassy wicket. Most likely not.
It is baffling that a bowler with such extraordinary skills isn't a constant fixture in the starting XI in the longest format of the game.
India have long overseas tours next year and the importance of Bhuvneshwar cannot be stressed enough. It must be remembered that he was India’s best cricketer on their tour to England three years back — picking up 19 wickets at 26.63 and compiling three half-centuries with the bat — but found himself ignored once India’s home season began.
A revamped Bhuvneshwar cannot be treated in such manner anymore. He is, and should be an integral part of this Test line-up irrespective of conditions. His consistency and varied skill sets make him a vital cog in India's Test line-up. The world knows it; do India know it too?
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