At the post-match presentation ceremony on Monday, Virat Kohli publicly confirmed Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s rise in stature. “He (Kumar) is a massive contender to start in every Test for India. He will be a vital part of our plans, especially overseas,” the skipper said, adding: “His bowling has picked up pace. His ball is heavier (hitting the bat harder) than what it used to be.”
A few yards away, showered with his captain’s praise, Kumar stood smiling. The fast bowler was there to collect his Man-of-the-Match award after an eight-wicket match haul in the first Test against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens. He had 4/88 in the first innings, when the pitch was still a little damp and the movement prodigious. His 4/8 in the second innings, however, was a swing-bowling masterclass, because the fifth-day surface had somewhat lost its juice. The main feature of Kumar’s bowling in the second innings was that he always kept the Sri Lanka batsmen guessing by bowling both conventional and reverse swing. “Frankly speaking, it was tougher to bowl in the second innings as the surface was a lot drier,” Kumar said post match.
Late on Monday, a BCCI mail landed, saying that Kumar “will not take any further part in the ongoing Test series”. The 27-year-old Uttar Pradesh seamer is getting married. It’s likely that he will return for the limited-overs leg ahead of boarding the South Africa-bound flight. At the moment, Kumar – even though he has played only 19 Tests out of 48 since his debut in February 2013 – is perhaps the only bowler in the Indian team who can be considered a regular in all three formats.
This India-Sri Lanka three-match Test series has arrived on the heels of back-to-back limited-overs assignments, against Australia and New Zealand. Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav only played one ODI each against the Aussies. Kumar, on the other hand, featured in four ODIs and two T20 Internationals. Against the Kiwis, Kumar played three ODIs and as many T20 Internationals. Shami and Yadav, the Test regulars, were overlooked. As for spin, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are seemingly out of India’s limited-overs scheme of things for now.
As India bumped into a green-top at Eden, Kumar once again became an automatic pick. He also opened the bowling in both innings. The team decided to release Ishant Sharma for the Ranji Trophy instead. Kumar, indeed, has come a long way.
No more condition-specific
His bowling was deemed conditions-specific not too long ago. Even in limited-overs cricket, MS Dhoni preferred to use him upfront and not much at the death. Three years ago in England, Kumar had taken 19 wickets in five Tests but even at his peak, his bowling gave the impression that success would be limited to seaming conditions only. Kumar was a military medium bowler then, operating at 125-130kph. In Australia, in the winter of 2014-15 (Australian summer), the seamer featured in only one Test, returning with an average of 168.00. A left ankle injury ahead of the tour didn’t help matters either.
A prolonged Test hiatus followed. In fact, Kumar’s first Test after that Australia tour was in August 2016. He returned with a five-for at Gros Islet. By then, he had increased his speed to almost 140kph. He now looks a completely different bowler, with pace and all his variations, across formats. Between August last year and the first Test against Sri Lanka that concluded on Monday, Kumar has 24 wickets in seven Tests including two five-fors. In 21 ODIs during this period, he has accounted for 25 scalps, lowering his average to 33.28. His career average is 36.82. He now bowls yorkers on demand in the shorter formats and, of late, has developed an effective knuckle ball.
“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 on Monday.
Venkatesh Prasad, who has previously worked as Uttar Pradesh’s head coach and India’s bowling coach, agreed.
“As far as Bhuvneshwar Kumar is concerned, he is very smart,” the former India seamer told The Indian Express. “He understands his strength. He is putting a lot of emphasis on his fitness. Technically speaking, his feet position and his wrist position allow him to bowl both outswing and inswing. His natural ability is to move the ball. For a while, however, he had lost it in search of some extra yards of pace. Probably, he was trying to hit the deck harder, instead of floating the ball in the air for a longer time. Now he has increased his pace, focusing more on fitness – strength training. And his variety comes from his smartness, understanding the situations. At times you bowl quick because of your confidence,” he added.
Earlier, most Indian fast bowlers would cut down their pace, seeking better control and longevity after a couple of seasons in international cricket. Kumar, however, is an exception, asserts Vikram Rathour, who watched Kumar from close quarters during his stint as national selector. “Pace is genetic,” Rathour told this paper. “It’s difficult to increase it after a certain point. But Bhuvi is one bowler who has gone from 130kph to 140kph. He is an exception. He has worked extremely hard on his fitness. He is running better… He has a better action now.”