On the eve of the India-Bangladesh Test in Indore last month, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was seen participating in a ‘skill session’ with fielding coach R. Sridhar. It involved drills, followed by a brief stint at the nets. A hamstring injury after the West Indies tour in August-September had virtually left Bhuvneshwar marooned at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru for close to three months. Hence, his sudden reappearance with the Indian team was bound to pique curiosity levels. “Since his return from the Caribbean, Bhuvi has been undergoing a lengthy rehabilitation programme with the NCA. He has joined the team in Indore to get into the groove,” was the official statement from the team management.
Allowing Bhuvneshwar time to “get into the groove” following a lengthy injury lay-off only illustrates the unflinching faith captain Virat Kohli has in the pacer. And now, the Meerut pacer finds himself back in the national reckoning, having earned a spot for the T20Is and ODIs against West Indies. Ahead of the first T20I, Kohli asserted that Bhuvneshwar’s wealth of experience in the shorter formats made him an automatic pick when fully fit. “It’s not that big an issue for us. I think Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar) and (Jasprit) Bumrah are experienced bowlers. They have been very consistent in T20 cricket,” the Indian captain said, adding that there is only one gap left to be filled in the team’s pace attack as it prepares for next year’s T20 World Cup in Australia. It indicated that in the skipper’s mind Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar and Mohammed Shami are almost certain to make the cut. “The fight obviously is for one spot and I think more or less three guys have made a place for themselves. It’s going to be a healthy competition and it will be interesting to see how it pans out,” Kohli explained.
Despite the captain’s confidence, Bhuvneshwar will know that making a comeback in international cricket is never easy. He looked insipid in the two Syed Mushtaq Trophy matches he played, where he could account for a solitary scalp. One could discount that considering these games were his first competitive outings since the injury lay-off. But even before that, Bhuvneshwar didn’t fare much better, having gone wicket-less in three of his last six international outings since the 2019 World Cup.
That Bhuvneshwar is a prodigious swing bowler is not in doubt. Hard work in the gym has helped him increase his pace by several notches, thereby breaching the 140kmph barrier. The zip, backed by his natural swing, transformed him into India’s all-format and all-surface bowler. However, in recent times, Deepak Chahar has shown a propensity to outdo Bhuvneshwar, by marrying swing with pace. The younger Chahar’s sensational rise in recent times as a white-ball bowler will keep the 29-year-old Bhuvneshwar on his heels.
Down the pecking order
Going by Kohli’s assertion, the Meerut pacer may have the requisite skill and gumption to be a certainty in the shorter formats. However, he’s quite some way down in the pecking order when it comes to Tests. It remains to be seen whether Bhuvneshwar’s performances in the upcoming series against West Indies could potentially translate into a return in whites.
Since making his debut in the longest format in March 2013 against Australia, Bhuvneshwar has featured in just 21 Tests. It’s not that he has suffered drastic dips in form, and neither has he been sidelined due to career-threatening injuries. It’s just that the surfeit of quality fast bowlers at Kohli’s disposal — Bumrah, Shami, a vastly improved Ishant Sharma and the resurgence of Umesh Yadav — meant that opportunities were few and far between. Such a wealth of options meant that the team management could not only rotate the pace attack, but also unleash them depending on the nature of the pitch and conditions. So, if the track had pace and zip, they would prefer Bumrah, while on occasions when there was reverse swing, Umesh would be their go-to man.
Just to put things in perspective, Bhuvneshwar’s last outing in whites came in the third India-South Africa Test match at Johannesburg in January 2018. Even an impressive performance in that game – with both bat and ball – did little to cement his spot for the subsequent tours, which was indicative of how low he had fallen in queue.
India is scheduled to play two Test matches in New Zealand early next year, and the team management will find it hard to look beyond their current pace quartet — comprising Bumrah, Ishant, Shami and Umesh — who blew away the hapless Proteas and out-of-depth Bangladesh. The only way Bhuvneshwar can make it in whites to New Zealand is if Bumrah doesn’t recover fully from his injury, which looks extremely unlikely. In such a scenario, the Uttar Pradesh bowler has no other option but to return to Ranji Trophy and hope that truckloads of wickets will help him reclaim his India spot for long-form cricket. For the time being, he will look to “get back into the groove” against West Indies.
First T20I: Live on Star Sports 1 & 3 — 7 pm onwards