To say the latest installment of the Indian Premier League was a batsman’s tournament is like saying the latest prime-time soap opera is tear-inducing. Both are innately designed thus, the latter made to dampen the tissue with unreal doses of melodrama, and the other made to thrill you with feats of thrill-a-minute batsmanship. The consumers know what exactly to expect before switching their set-top boxes on, or rather they look for what they expect, and get what they expect.
This year, they were wholesomely treated to some exceptional batting feats by two batting colossus of this generation-Virat Kohli and David Warner, piling up more runs any other batsmen in a single edition of the nine-year-old league, then AB de Villiers fashioning a great feat of escapology, after a hundred of pyrotechnical marvel.
There were batsmen of various hues and roles shaping the destiny of matches, so much so that the mean of 28.36 runs per wicket was the highest the league has ever seen.
The latter piece of stat doesn’t put the bowlers in any favourable light, and further conspiring against their effectiveness was that no bowler manager managed more than 25 wickets, which has happened only once in the last five years, and just three managed 20 or more wickets.
There weren’t too many lasting images of bowlers hatching something peculiarly sensational either-there was Australian leggie Adam Zampa wrenching out six wickets (in fact the only time a bowler has picked more than five wickets), Dhawal Kulkarni slitting through the famed top-order of Bangalore, or Amit Mishra spinning a yarn aroud clueless Kings XI Punjab batsmen. A spate of unorthodox spinners made news, sometimes just because they were unorthodox. Resultantly, only 19 Man of the Match cheques were handed out to bowlers.
You discount the instances of all-round performances it drops to 16. Or to put it the other way around, batsmen were adjudged player of the match on as many as 41 times.
This isn’t to say the bowlers were effectless, but their impact, on many instances weren’t as pronounced as the batsmen. Or peripheral so to speak. All these facts only embellish the scale of Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s accomplishments – not just as the highest wicket-taker of the tournament but also as among the most influential protagonists of the triumphant Hyderabad Sunrisers.
And while assessing his effectiveness, one has to consider not just the numbers he wrought, but also the impact he had on specific situations. Like for example in the final, he didn’t pick a wicket, but nonetheless had a decisive but intangible influence on the match. In the first two overs, he conceded just 11 runs, and of those, eight runs came off two edgy boundaries.
To manage these against two of the most demonic batsmen in world, on a rampant chase of 209 runs, is some achievement. True the batsmen were a tad cautious to begin with-they knew not giving him a wicket was the first step in their lofty ascent-but these are two high-quality batsmen who can latch on to even half a gift, or even perfectly destroy good balls. But the slight hint of out-swing he generated was enough to keep Kohli in check. Gayle, on the other hand, was cramped for room to free those massive arms. So he pitched most deliveries on middle and leg, making it shape a tad into him. This is exactly the line that irritates Gayle.
Bhuvneshwar, though, had to be extremely cautious, for a couple of inches on either side would give Gayle the necessary freedom to summon his strokes. In fact, in their first league encounter, he had bowled him on the leg-side. To both batsmen, he bowled mostly good length and just once did he err on the shorter side.
It’s this immaculate control at the beginning of the innings that makes him irritably hard to get away, despite the strips offering hardly any lateral movement, the thriving habitat of Bhuvneshwar. It’s another reason he has piled up more dot balls than any other bowler in the league. The two overs against Gayle and Kohli was his stubborn template in the entire series, a template he needn’t have changed for the sake of it.
As a result, only four times has he leaked more than 15 runs in his first two overs, and only once more than 10, when Robin Uthappa was in contemptuous mood and thrashed him for three boundaries in the first over. He has bargained a wicket on as many as nine times. “With the new ball, as an opening batsman I wouldn’t like to come up against him on a wicket like this because he sets the tone from ball one,” observed Warner.
But it’s his resourcefulness at the death that has surprised most. To start with, he was mostly perceived as a deceptive bowler with the new ball, but one whose sting fades away with the shine of the ball. So much so that it become a stereotype. Even Mahendra Singh Dhoni had this tendency to bowl him out in the initial overs when playing for India. But Bhuvneshwar has gloriously busted this perception. In fact 13 of his 23 wickets have come at the death, and apart from brunt he bore of Sarfraz Khan’s bat in his first match, wherein his last over was plundered for 28 runs, he has smartly pulled off the death-over act, shown that he has the necessary smarts and nous to stifle batsmen at the death.
Unlike the overs with the new ball, he pushes the length a bit up. If not a yorker, the length will still be full, sometimes even a low full toss, the pace of which he keeps changing. Even when he’s hit, he scarcely succumbs to a fast-bowler’s natural response, which is to retort with a short ball.
His change in pace is not so discernible-understandable as he is not someone who can test the stretchability of the speed gun. However, he will mix it up with speeds ranging anywhere from 120 kmph to 140 kmph.
New weapon, yorker
But it’s the singular addition of the yorker that has made him such a skilled bowler at the death. His yorkers are not lightening fast, rip-roaring, toe-crushing ones that veer in viciously and shatter the batsmen’s stumps and morale. But his are almost dart-like, arrowed into the batsman and teasing him with its staggering accuracy than devilish swerves. Bangalore’s Stuart Binny would attest to that. When Bhuvneshwar was entrusted to bowl in the 18th over of the final, the required run-rate was still within manageable limits — 37 off 18 deliveries. Sachin Baby and Stuart Binny were winding up for the big shots. What does Bhuvneshwar do? He bowls a leg-stump yorker, then another on off-stump, then a low full toss on off, again another yorker on leg-stump and then a slower ball. That’s just three runs of five balls. And it took a piece of innovation from Baby, and the first loose ball of the over, for Bangalore to break those shackles. But a seven-run over in the context of the game was priceless. And he made it look so casual, as if he was bowling on the first morning of an inconsequential Ranji Trophy match.
When he gathered pace into his run up to deliver the last over, RCB needed 18, which by the daring of the modern batsmen isn’t unachievable. But with three low full tosses and a searing yorker, he sealed the title for the Sunrisers. There is also an imperceptible passion about him, which Warner greatly relied on. “I have got utmost faith in him (Bhuvneshwar) and the way he plays his cricket. He is passionate. He loves the game and, I always rely on him towards the end.”
Bhuvi, the leader
Another hitherto hidden facet of Bhuvneshwar, one which augurs well for the national team, that emerged as the tournament wore on was his leadership skills. On the field, he isn’t the most articulate one. He is almost an introvert, self-effacing and someone who seems like he is flustered by attention. Bit of a recluse in that sense. But the inadvertent injury to Nehra morphed Bhuvneshwar into a fine, young leader of men in a side where most of the bowlers were less experienced than him.
By his own admission, and humility, he was merely trying to impart the younger bowlers with the wisdom that was passed on to him by Nehra. “When you are bowling together there are little things, like how you set the field, what is the strength of which batsman and so how do you bluff him — little things like that which he talked about which has helped. And that is probably what I tried to help [Barinder] Sran with. I know that I can’t do what he [Nehra] did with his experience. But I was trying to do and play the role that he did,” he said.
And it finally took the nerve-wracking circumstances of a final to elicit some emotion from him.