In January this year, both Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami reached the landmark of 100 One Day International wickets. While the former achieved the feat in the first ODI against Australia at Sydney, Shami got his against New Zealand at Napier. More interestingly, Shami, who was playing his 56th ODI, became the fastest Indian bowler to the feat while Bhuvneshwar Kumar, playing his 96th ODI, was the fourth slowest Indian to the milestone.
In many ways, it is ironic to say the least. Bhuvneshwar has always been India’s preferred bowler in the shortest formats of the game since his debut in 2012. On the other hand, Shami, who debuted days after Bhuvneshwar, has had a stop-start career in ODIs despite justifying his place in the side with his wicket-taking abilities.
Extravagant swing in the air and an ability to nail his toe-crushers made Bhuvneshwar an invaluable asset to the Indian side in his early years. Even if he was a sidekick to Shami in the longer formats of the game, the Meerut seamer was always preferred over the hit-the-deck-pacer Shami in ODIs.
This was until 2018 when India realised that Bhuvneshwar wasn’t bowling at full tilt. A back injury sustained during the England ODI series turned worse and despite travelling with the Test team in England and Australia, Bhuvneshwar, Man of the Match in his final Test match at Johannesburg last year, never played a Test.
His ODI rhythm was slowly regained through arduous work in the nets in Australia. He trained to bowl four-over spells to find rhythm and consistency and before the start of the ODIs in Australia, he was practicing yorkers by placing a shoe on the pitch. In the ODI series that followed, a phase when he was on the field for the first time after a month, he tormented Aaron Finch and picked up crucial wickets.
But there was a different challenge. Shami, who had come into the ODI team just in time for the World Cup, was picking up wickets consistently. With India boasting of Hardik Pandya and the spin twins alongside Jasprit Bumrah, only one of Shami or Bhuvneshwar was going to make the final World Cup eleven.
Such had been Bhuvneshwar’s lack of rhythm that he had averaged 33.89 and 48.81 in 2017 and 2018. That he would inch ahead of Shami, who had returned with zeal and fervour, to the World Cup starting XI seemed unfathomable especially after the Kings XI Punjab seamer showed death-bowling skills in the IPL even as Bhuvneshwar was taken to the cleaners.
Yet, Bhuvneshwar was chosen over Shami in the first World Cup game against South Africa leading to eyebrows being raised. Even as he suffered another bout of injury during the tournament, he returned to displace Shami from the starting XI. The swing bowler has figured in 18 of the 24 ODIs India have played this year and with 33 wickets in these matches, few are complaining about his returns now. In terms of wickets, Shami still trumps Bhuvneshwar with 35 wickets in the year but the latter has shown that he can pick up big wickets in any phase of the game, a trait that was never really there before.
Since his debut, Bhuvneshwar has never had a strike rate of less than 30 in a year. He had never picked up more than 30 wickets in a year either. This year he has 33 wickets at a strike rate of 26.3. Stringing together dots and bowling tight lines has always been associated with Bhuvneshwar but landing the killer blow with wickets was always a task for the bowler at the other end. This year, that has gotten different.
“We knew if we could get one or two wickets then we would be back in the game. When I came to bowl, all I was thinking was I have to bowl economically and I feel that wickets are the by-product of bowling tight,” Bhuvneshwar said after the second ODI against the West Indies.
At Port of Spain, Bhuvneshwar picked up 4/31, picking up the big wickets of Nicholas Pooran and Roston Chase in one over to give India a decisive advantage right when the game was on the balance. Partnership-breaking is the latest addition to his skill sets. In this year, Bhuvneshwar has time and again shown that he can be banked upon to pick big wickets in times of need.
In the World Cup game against Australia, Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell were cruising in a run-chase of 353. At 238/3 in 39 overs, they seemed headed in the right direction with Smith dropping anchor as Maxwell accelerated. But Bhuvneshwar turned up to wreck Australia’s chase with the wickets of Smith (on 69) and Marcus Stoinis in the space of three balls. The pressure saw Maxwell dismissed in the next over and the game was won then and there.
Earlier in the year, he had sent back Usman Khawaja on 100 in the Delhi ODI when Australia seemed set to scale 300. At Adelaide in January, he dismissed Shaun Marsh (on 131) and Glenn Maxwell (on 48) at the death to peg back Australia’s final heave.
The last time he suffered an injury (in 2015/16), Bhuvneshwar stormed back onto the scene with extra pace, reverse swing and the knuckle ball. This time around, he has found a way of picking up wickets with his consistent lines. From being an economical pacer to a consistently wicket-taking one, Bhuvneshwar’s transformation for the better has given him a consistent run in the side. Even at a time when India are looking to test the bench strength, Bhuvneshwar remains one of the first names in the team sheet.