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India tour of England: Against the run of play

Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Varun Aaron and weather prevent England from running away with the game on Day Two.

India captain MS Dhoni walks from the pitch as rain begins to fall on the second day of the fourth Test in Manchester on Friday. (Source: AP) India captain MS Dhoni walks from the pitch as rain begins to fall on the second day of the fourth Test in Manchester on Friday. (Source: AP)

In the first session of play, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Varun Aaron came up with a couple of magical balls that showcased not just their varying skills but also their contrasting mindsets and divergent cricketing grooming. Aaron knocked back Moeen Ali’s off-stump with a ball bowled in the high 140 kmphs, while Bhuvneshwar, several yards slower, induced the faintest of edges from Ian Bell’s bat to dismiss him caught behind.

These two vital blows before lunch kept India in the game and the series. With no play possible after tea because of that dreaded Manchester rain that devastated the outfield and rendered it too soggy to play on, England finished at 237/6 — leading India by 85 runs at the end of Day Two. Showers and India’s pacers had not allowed Bell, Ali or England to bat India out of the fourth Test.

Those two memorable scalps, talking points during the long rain break, were the kind bowlers return to during a slump to stay positive or while ‘ego surfing’ to kill time. “Manchester + fourth Test + England first innings” is what Bhuvneshwar and Aaron are expected to google when depressed or bored in the future. Aaron’s monstrous in-swinger to the left-handed Moeen Ali was the kind Waqar Younis used to bowl to bruise egos and break toes. Bhuvneshwar’s precisely pitching ball at the “there, thereabouts” length which moved just that little bit had Glenn McGrath’s signature all over it.

At the ‘School of Speedsters’, Waqar and McGrath are the two high priests. They are deans of two different streams of pace bowling that divide young pacers very early in their cricketing lives.

In early 2000, two teenagers, with no grand dream of playing for India back then, took this all-important call. One loved his pace and was willing to sprint down the run-up and bend his back. He wanted to be a tearaway and thrilled at the sight of cartwheeling stumps. He was of course Aaron, who calls all of India his home because of his father’s transferable job at Mico Bosch.

Presently, his parents stay in Pune while he is based out of Bangalore, though he plays for Jharkhand. He is a city slicker who knows Malayalam but prefers conversing in English. He is a product of the MRF Pace Academy, the institution that has thrown up several 140-plus bowlers, who mysteriously go slower after wearing India colours.

Aaron seems to be an exception. Today the bowler, who first hit headlines by clocking 150 kph in a domestic game, repeatedly clocked spells in the high 140s. Returning to international cricket after a stress fracture-related back surgery, he wasn’t holding back any punches.

Nor was Bhuvneshwar, for that matter. Before this Test, he had a swollen ankle because of his heavy workload in the series so far. But like Aaron, the swing bowler didn’t want to waste the chance of bowling on a pacy Old Trafford pitch, on a cloudy and conducive day. The Uttar Pradesh bowler was familiar with these conditions. The son of a police cop, Bhuvneshwar has been a Meerut boy all his life. At the Victoria Park Stadium, which is both his and the crafty Praveen Kumar’s alma mater, Bhuvneshwar had seen many rainy wintry mornings. It’s on days like those that he learned to control his swing.

On the other hand…

Unlike Aaron, Bhuvneshwar isn’t a product of a high-profile institution. He picked bowling tips while playing on the circuit that has historically produced very skilful bowlers. That “cunning UP swing bowler” who was a regular feature on the domestic circuit had now gone well and truly international. RP Singh, Praveen Kumar, Sudeep Tyagi and now Bhuvneshwar have done what Ashish Winston Zaidi and Obaid Kamal couldn’t. But, as a rule, they all smirk at the speedgun and go strangely silent when you ask them to explain their art. “It’s just a flick of the wrist,” is their most conventional answer.

Bhuvneshwar’s dismissal of Bell was a perfect example of how a subtle change can fox the most proficient or well-set batsman. He started with a ball that came into Bell with the seam pointing to the slips all through the journey. On pitching, it seamed away and missed the bat. The next ball, this time the seam position a bit straighter, moved slightly less after pitching. This one clipped the edge.

Aaron’s dismissal of Ali was dramatic and television friendly. He set up the England left-hander with a short ball. Ali dealt with the ball like a boxer hiding behind his guard to fend off punches. Visibly shaken, the bearded all-rounder couldn’t hold on to the vicious in-swinger that followed. The ball had curved in from way outside to hit off and middle. Ali almost slipped while following the trajectory of the floating, bending ball. Since all this was happening very fast, the batsman didn’t have time to react. India had come up with a unique one-two.

Bhuvneshwar and Aaron celebrated their scalps differently. The swing bowler merely allowed himself a shy smile, while the quick let out a yell. They were hunting in pairs but their weapons were different and so were their war cries.

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