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Bhuvi: India's unassuming hero

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Bhuvneshwar_Kumar_India_Cricket"Never seen Bhuvi bowl that before, great skill! Wow," was what South African pace legend Dale Steyn tweeted during the first T20I between South Africa and India at Johannesburg recently. Steyn was talking about India’s swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar, fondly known as Bhuvi, who had bamboozled the opposition batsmen with the canny use of his newly introduced knuckleball.

During that match, Bhuvi employed his knuckleball smartly and ended with terrific figures of 5/28, helping India fashion a 28-run win over the hosts. At the post-match presentation where he was adjudged the Man of the Match, Bhuvi stressed that he just liked to keep things simple and most of the times that was what worked for him.

This has always been the story of Bhuvneshwar Kumar. He keeps things simple, never goes overboard and lets his performance do the talking. He is unassuming yet effective. He is refreshingly different from today’s modern cricketers who like to be in your face, and are brash and ultra-aggressive all the time. Bhuvi operates differently and that is what makes him special.

Quietly and steadily, Kumar has made his way to the top of the Indian bowling unit and is today the team’s most dependable match-winning bowler. While he may not have raw pace in his armory, Bhuvi finds success through relentless accuracy, clever variations and the ability to move the ball both ways. The addition of the knuckleball now makes him even more lethal.

In fact, Bhuvi’s progress in recent times has been pretty remarkable. Not too long ago, he was considered just a decent medium-paced swing bowler whose bowling was deemed conditions-specific. He was usually utilized upfront and hardly used at the death. However, the Meerut-born pacer has added an extra yard of pace and several variations to his repertoire, which make him a very difficult opponent for batsmen in all three formats.

Not only does he curb runs – economy rates of 4.99 and 6.74 in the ODIs and T20Is respectively – but is now a genuine wicket-taker. In the lead up to India’s preparations for the 2019 World Cup in England next year, Bhuvneshwar Kumar will definitely be the most prominent figure of their bowling lineup.

Bhuvi 2.0

Bhuvneshwar Kumar had an interesting start to his international career. On his very first ball in ODI cricket he bowled Pakistan’s Mohammad Hafeez, uprooting his off-stump with a nippy inswinger. Just a few days earlier, he had done the same in his first over in the T20Is against the same team.

While Bhuvi had left an impression with his controlled swing and seam in his initial few matches, he was operating at a pace of about 125-130kmph. Once the freshness of the pitch had dried out, he appeared to be less effective and would struggle to generate swing and trouble the batsmen.

This lack of pace meant that then skipper MS Dhoni would often stand up to the stumps when Kumar would bowl during the middle-overs of ODIs. Dhoni also liked to use most of Bhuvi’s overs at the start as he had often been ineffectual at the death in limited overs cricket.

Bhuvi also did well in the longer format in England – taking 19 wickets in 5 Tests there in 2014 – but had been pretty average everywhere else. In conditions that did not aid his swing and movement, Bhuvneshwar was not very effective. In fact, in the solitary Test he played in Australia – at Sydney in late 2015 – he returned the pathetic figures of 1-168.

Bhuvi played his next Test in August 2016. But by then he was a changed bowler. He was Bhuvi 2.0.

Realizing that he had to modify his ways to survive in all formats and excel, Kumar had increased his speed to almost 140kmph. He looked much fitter and sharper and had a better action.

Bhuvi first showed his newer, improved self in the 2016 Indian Premier League (IPL) where, playing for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, he snared 23 wickets to emerge as the highest-wicket-taker of the season. He was fast, was bowling pin-point yorkers and also flummoxing batsmen with his slower ones.

Bhuvneshwar made a return to Indian Test side later that year in the Test against West Indies at Gros Islet. On a slow pitch, he made an instant impression with a superb performance of 5-33 in the first innings. A few months later, against the visiting New Zealand side at Kolkata, Bhuvi delivered a terrific, match-winning spell of 5-48, showing that he had it in him to thrive in all formats and conditions now.

He has only progressed further with each season. The 2017 IPL was another feather in the cap for the seamer as he ended as the highest wicket-taker of the season for the second year in a row, with 26 wickets at a superb economy of 7.05. He has in fact constantly credited the IPL for his improved bowling, stating that the tournament has allowed him to practice bowling better lines and working on his variations in pressure situations.

Despite the progress he has made and the immense value he has provided to the Indian team in the last couple of years, Bhuvi has at times been treated rather poorly by the management.

In the recent Test series against South Africa, Bhuvneshwar took 6 wickets in the first Test at Cape Town and was easily the best Indian bowler on display. However, he was mysteriously dropped in the second Test at Centurion, leading to outrage among the fans and shock from former cricketing greats like Sunil Gavaskar, Allan Donald and VVS Laxman. After India lost that Test, Kumar was brought back into the side for the final match at Johannesburg and took 4 wickets in a famous Indian win.

Perhaps it is a matter of perception – that he won’t be as effective on pitches that do not offer swing – that still goes against Kumar sometimes. It’s unfair on him, having worked so hard on his game and constantly doing well for the team, to be treated this way. One can only hope that the Indian team management learns to handle the pacer better in the coming days.

Handle with care

So often in the past have we seen a talented Indian swing bowler come in with a lot of promise, only to fizzle out with time. The likes of Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Praveen Kumar and Munaf Patel are the more recent examples who fall in that category. All of these swing bowlers started out with impressive pace, but with time, in order to extend their careers, dropped their speed and went on to become pale shadows of their former selves.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar is pretty similar to the early Praveen Kumar. Unlike Praveen, rather than dropping his pace, Bhuvi is in fact focusing on increasing his speed and putting a lot of emphasis on his fitness to stay ahead.

“When I made my debut, I was totally dependent on swing. International circuit tells you what you need to improve on. I worked hard on my fitness and that is paying off,” Kumar said to a newspaper last year.

At 28 years of age, Bhuvneshwar Kumar has time on his side. He is reaching his prime and the next few seasons will be significant, giving us a fair idea where he is headed. It will be essential that the team management handles him well. Given the amount of cricket being played these days, fast bowlers are under a lot of pressure. Bhuvi plays all the formats for India and it will be vital to manage his workload prudently lest he break down.

Knowing Bhuvneshwar, one can be certain that he will stick to the basics, keep things simple and come up with ways to remain ahead of his game. Like the introduction of the knuckleball, he is sure to keep developing unique variations to adapt and excel. He is a smart, level-headed and composed youngster. And there should be no doubt now that Bhuvi 2.0 is here to stay.

 

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