The Trent Bridge Test saw Bhuvneshwar Kumar bat for 5 hours, score a fifty in both innings, use the new ball, log 30.5 overs and finish with an average of 121, and figures of 5 for 82. After doing all that, it must have broken his heart to hear the Stuart Binny question: Is he the pace all-rounder that Mahendra Singh Dhoni always wanted for an away Test?
The 24-year old from Meerut is too collected and cautious to allow himself an outburst. But maybe, just before leaving Nottingham for Lord’s, when alone, he would have uttered under his breath: “What am I, if not a pace all-rounder?”
Cricket, with its deep-seated hierarchies, has a tendency to slot players. Generally, pace all-rounders immediately get rewarded with a Test berth for their consistent ‘bits and pieces’ job in the shorter version. However, when it comes to identifying the second skill of specialists, the team management takes time.
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That’s the reason Dhoni might still persist with Binny for the second Test even when he has the option of looking at Bhuvneshwar as the pace-all rounder. In the unlikely scenario of the skipper actually recognising his genuine swing-bowler’s batting skills, he can have the luxury of including one specialist.
It could be Rohit Sharma or one among Ravichandran Ashwin, Varun Aaron, Pankaj Singh and Ishwar Pandey, depending on the conditions at Lord’s. Five bowlers or seven batsmen, Dhoni can have the flexibility that most well-balanced teams have.
Before this Test match, Dhoni had let out a familiar groan: “We don’t have that seaming all-rounder at the moment when you play outside the sub-continent”. This led to the team trying the Binny experiment, despite the Karanataka all-rounder’s pedestrian pace. While he was impressive with the bat, Binny, the bowler, failed to make any impact against the English batsmen, who have grown up batting against livelier pacers and who move the ball much more.
Trent Bridge showed that Bhuvneshwar seemed a far more effective batsman than Binny was with a ball in his hand.
Dhoni is aware that the boy with the slim frame has a stout heart while batting. Last year, in his debut Test, Bhuvneshwar scored 140 with Dhoni against an Aussie pace attack that had James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Mitchel Starc.
He stuck around for a couple of hours with the game’s double centurion, Dhoni, as India batted Australia out of the Test.
It was that outing, which saw Bhuvneshwar believe in himself. According to coach Vipin Vats, who has groomed the pacer at the Victoria Park academy in Meerut, his ward returned home high on confidence. “He has scored a lot on the domestic circuit but the Test knock and his partnership with Dhoni changed him as a batsman,” says Vats.
Been there, done that
Like most UP cricketers, Bhuvneshwar always worked hard on his second skill. In the highly-competitive junior circuit where ‘push and pull’ decide winners and losers on selection day, quite early in their cricketing lives, players learn to increase their utility.
Growing up, the boy from Meerut would spend most of his off-season in the batting nets. Playing for UP, he bats before Piyush Chawla and Praveen Kumar.
Bhuvneshwar has played significant innings but most have gone unnoticed. The first time he hit the headlines was when he dismissed Sachin Tendulkar for a duck in the 2008-09 Ranji final. It was Tendulkar’s only first class duck back then. In the same game, he scored 80 when UP struggled to save the game. Just last year in the Duleep Trophy semifinal, he scored his first first-class ton. While playing with a tailender, he farmed the strike and refused to run a single thrice, even when he was on 99. For the domestic cricket watcher, Bhuvneshwar mentoring Mohammed Shami was no surprise.
Before the England trip, Bhuvneshwar was desperate to do well with the bat in England. His close friend and UP team-mate Parvinder Singh says Bhuvneshwar wasn’t just looking to swing the ball but was also working hard how to negotiate this movement while batting. “For hours together, he was batting against the heavy plastic ball. I would give him about 50 throw downs and he would ask for more,” he says.
It might take a few more important knocks for Dhoni to see Bhuvneshwar as a pace all-rounder but the bowler certainly fancies himself as one. Maybe, in time, Dhoni will come around. It’s like searching for the car keys all over the house only to find them hanging in the ignition slot.