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Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s bowling art: Deception lies at the heart of his craft

Bhuvneshwar Kumar has a high cricketing IQ. He mastered the knuckleball in just two months, which’s incredible.

Written by Prasanna Agoram | Updated: April 28, 2018 9:46:44 am
Bhuvneshwar Kumar first unleashed his knuckleball in the IPL last year. It produced instant results. (Source: AP)

It would have been understandable if Bhuvneshwar Kumar weren’t a successful limited-overs bowler. Critics have spoken about his lack of real pace and how the Indian conditions aren’t conducive to swing bowling. Yet he has turned himself into one of the world’s best bowlers. How?For one, Bhuvneshwar isn’t military medium, though his lean frame suggests otherwise. But it works to his advantage. He is nippier than what the batsman thinks. Moreover, fast bowlers such as Kagiso Rabada, Mithchell Starc, and Billy Stanlake operate at around 140 kmph. Some of their deliveries zip across at 145kmph, but that’s not the norm. Yorker specialist Ben Laughlin clocks less than 130 kmph. Bhuvneshwar, meanwhile, touches 135 kmph comfortably — but, more importantly, he is preternaturally accurate.

Consequently, Bhuvneshwar has great command over his variations: the knuckleball, cutters and slow bouncers. His yorkers are laser-precise. He also has an effective yorker variation, one that land way outside-off stump.

Overall, he is a very canny bowler, who has the tricks, the control, and the awareness to decide his variations according to the state of the match and the type of batsman. But variations would mean nothing if the bowler telegraphs to the batsman what’s coming his way. Bhuvneshwar’s art, then, is all about deception: how he conceals his variations from the batsman. There is no real discernible change in the arm speed, or in the release.

Getting a Grip

Bhuvneshwar has a high cricketing IQ. He mastered the knuckleball in just two months, which is incredible. Most top bowlers have spoken about the years spent learning this variation. Bhuvneshwar has two kinds of leg-cutters — one he bowls at regular pace and the second one that is significantly slower. For the ‘regular’ leg-cutter, he keeps the wrist upright at the time of release. For the ‘slower one’, his hands are a touch wide at release and he virtually squeezes the ball out of his hand. This gives the ball backspin and a significant drop in pace. Moreover, with the seam going in an anticlockwise direction, the ball bounces more than expected.

However, his most deceptive balls are the off-cutter and the slow bouncer. For both these balls, he uses his index and middle finger to hold the ball cross-seamed. The thumb provides support to the ball. It’s a very distinct and popular grip that bowlers use to bowl the off-cutter. Most international batsmen can easily see through this trick. But that’s when Bhuvneshwar’s deception kicks in. With the same grip, just by changing the length, he can come up with a deadly variation.

If he keeps the cross-seamed ball full, it turns out be an off-cutter. But in case, just before the release, he uses his shoulder a bit more and bang the ball shorter, the batsman ends up dealing with a slower bouncer that cuts in. So, in case the batsman thinks he has picked the ball based on the grip, and pre-determines his response, he can still find himself in trouble.

Nailing the Yorkers

The blockhole yorker is the most difficult to produce as it demands a lot out of the bowler. That’s why you don’t see them firing it too often. The trick for a deadly yorker lies in how late you release the ball. As in, you have to extend the bowling arm away from the body, and release it a touch late, as compared to the length ball. This slightly late release — or extension of that front arm at release — demands a lot of adjustments. The bowling stride has to be short — a longer stride hampers the body balance, more so when the arm is extended out and the release is late.

The more upright you are, the better the chances of nailing the blockhole. The upper body won’t lean forward too much, if the bowling stride is too long. Bhuvneshwar does all this really well and, as a result, pings the blockhole more often than not.

Even with yorkers, his deception comes through. He has two kinds of yorkers — full and straight, and the wide yorker. In the past, we have seen bowlers tend to go a lot wider at the crease to produce the wide yorker. Good batsmen pick it up early, and slice those past point. Bhuvneshwar doesn’t give them that early notice. Even with the wide yorker, his back foot isn’t all that wide from the crease — yes, a touch wider than the straight yorker, but not by much. Instead, at times, he gets his bowling arm a tad closer to the ear and fires it wide.

(Prasanna Agoram is South Africa’s performance analyst and a Level III coach. He has also worked with several IPL teams.)

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