If the fear of the match slipping away crept into the Indian faces on the field and across the stadium, Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s shining eyes concealed it. As Reeza Hendricks, furiously tapping the bat on the turf in a tearing hurry to finish the match, waited impatiently to pick Bhuvneshwar over some isolated parch of the field, the latter stood patiently at the top of his run-up, flipping the ball in his palms, unhinged by the carnage he and his fellow-men had just witnessed.
He streamed in, his face conceding not a grain of fear or concern, the ball clutched neatly in his ring and index fingers, his brain conceptualising and visualising the trajectory and landing of the ball, telegraphing nothing of his design to the batsman. Hendricks, though, had made his mind up. He would gather all the force of his sinews to smear the ball he had been pounding all this while. A length ball, he anticipated. After all, Bhuvneshwar rarely bowls yorkers at the start of an over, and even if he were to slip in one, his pace means Hendricks has enough time to get underneath it, or at its worst dig it up. After all, he had just hit to submission the most unhittable of Indian seamers, Jasprit Bumrah.
This is where Bhuvneshwar is most deadly, when a batsman begins to underestimate his pace and craft, when he equates pace to craft. He reads him right. It was a length ball, and he swings his sweaty, ripping forearms across, his feet almost plunging in the sheer exertion of his upper body. But wait, the ball begins to deviate away after pitching. He’s so committed to the shot that he can’t change it at the very last micro second. The weight takes him through with the shot, even as ball keeps drifting further away. It takes a faint, fatal edge to the keeper. Not a deviously swinging toecrusher at supersonic pace—the most violent tool of a fast bowler—but a good old-fashioned leg cutter has done him in. If 50 off 18 balls had seemed possible at the start of the over, Bhuvneshwar rolled the shutters down on South Africa’s lingering hope with the timeliest of strikes in an increasingly in-vogue weapon in T20s, the leg cutter.
Worse was to follow, as he picked two more wickets to complete his maiden five-for in T20Is (he’s the first Indian with five-fors in all formats) and Hardik Pandya effected a dead-eye run out to effectively end South Africa’s pursuit of setting the tone for the T20I series. Two more overs later, they were officially handed out the verdict—that they lost the match by 28 runs. South Africa’s old-timers would roll out that favourite word, “choke” to describe the defeat, but it’s more apt if they ascribed the defeat to Bhuvneshwar not choking.
However, Bhuvneshwar’s craft and composure shouldn’t be viewed or judged merely by the 17th over.
Sure, it was the most decisive over of the match, from a result-perspective, but Bhuvneshwar had a big role in stalling them up front too. Jon-Jon Smuts couldn’t decipher the slower-one, propelled by the knuckles. He confesses he gets a kick out of dismissing batsmen with the knuckle ball, which he learned, and then mastered, on the go during the IPL in the last couple of years.
Shortly, JP Duminy couldn’t configure the conventional slower one, where he merely rolled his fingers over. If you consider each of his wicket a dots and try to connect those, you get a full and clear picture of Bhuvneshwar’s T20-art form, which is vastly different from his Test-match or ODI art. It’s this flexibility, a flexibility many thought he was incapable of once, that has transformed him to Kohli’s cross-format Mr Reliable.
To a large extent, he has debunked the archetype of successful T20 fast bowlers as grisly men with wild actions and wilder pace, with a penchant to disfigure batsmen’s ribs and toes. On the contrary, the soul of Bhuvneshwar’s craft embodies non-violence. It’s all nuance and polish. And as history teaches you, non-violence can win bigger battles than a cricket match.
He was antithetical to the other protagonist of the match—his Sunrisers Hyderabad teammate Shikhar Dhawan, whose batting was anything but non-violent. Through much of the powerplay overs, he was a cheery onlooker. He grinned and guffawed as Rohit Sharma smeared the ball over either side of the square boundary; before Suresh Raina, in his comeback game, smote another six through mid-wicket. Dhawan, his Test travails rolled under the limited-over deluge, nudged a quick single here, mis-hit a few others there, and before the South African pacers could even gauge his mood, he cut loose.
When Dhawan cuts loose, when his mind is bend on smoking the daylights of the leather-stitched white ball, a wave of morbid panic sinks in amongst pacers.
The skipper begins to fidget with his field, the bowler strives for that extra yard of pace, and all the momentum they’d seized seems to burn away. And it sometimes takes just one stroke, one stroke of utter authority and disdain. His first boundary—a whiplash flick over mid-wicket off Junior Dala—was enough for the callow South African to shrink away on the field.
Hitherto, Dhawan had looked fretful, his attempted pulls kissing and winking at the edges, making him resemble the edgy white-robed version than the robust blue-draped one. Right from the start, South Africa’s design to dismiss Dhawan was clear, pepper him with the short ball and he’s bound to top-edge one. They, surely, were over-fed on Dhawan’s Test footage. But in the shorter versions, he is a more controlled player, rather destroyer, of the short-pitched deliveries. Also, the ensemble cast of Chris Morris, Dala and Dane Paterson doesn’t quite ring in the same dread as Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada or Lung Ngidi. There’s no steep bounce or sharp movement off the surface either.
The lanky Morris did hurry him and induce a couple of top edges, but both went fine of the fine-leg fielder. But at Dala’s pace, those turned gilt-edged boundary balls, which were chomped into with relish by Dhawan. A six over fine leg and a four through point ensured that India, despite losing Rohit and Raina, creamed 78 runs in the powerplay overs. But the field-spreading didn’t deter South African seamers and even spinners to dig in short at him, and Dhawan crunched and crushed them for boundaries, bemused by the unusual largesse served up to him. True, he’s a terrific player on the leg-side, but he was afforded the opportunity to maximise his strengths.
That seven of his 10 boundaries and both sixes were fetched on the leg-side shows not just his liking for the leg-side but also the erring ways of South Africa’s bowlers. Dhawan, much ridiculed for his effectiveness outside Asia wouldn’t mind it the least.
His dismissal dried up the runs, and Kohli did admit that India fell 20 runs short, but Bhuvneshwar didn’t make him feel the shortage acutely.