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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Whispering death: Bhuvneshwar has skill, subtlety to outwit batsmen

During the recent T20 internationals and ODIs against England, the medium pacer showed why he is operating on a different plane.

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi |
Updated: March 31, 2021 3:25:41 pm
Bhuvneshwar KumarBesides Bhuvneshwar, ace leg-spinner Rashid Khan of Afghanistan and Zimbabwe's Sean Williams were also nominated in the men's category. (PTI)

Much of Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s last three years were spent in cricketing wilderness. In hospital rooms, on the surgeons’ tables, and in rehab centres, nursing sores and bruises, whereas in an ideal world he would have been on the cricketing field, adding more names and numbers to his wicket ledger, establishing his own name as an all-format, all-condition fast-bowling colossus.

The list of marquee series he missed out on is long and rueful—the ODI World Cup in England, two Test tours to Australia, one tour of England and New Zealand apiece to name but a few. In the golden era of India’s fast-bowling, the most golden-armed of their men was missing. He wasn’t missed as it was touted to be, despite his absence India emerged as a bona fide proposition overseas, yet India felt they were incomplete without. His comeback infuses them with that sense of completion.

Perhaps, there’s no larger a tribute to his worth and place in Indian cricket than the sheer reason that he was not forgotten amidst a plethora of burgeoning bowlers. The unforgotten one, if you could call him. The pricelessness of his craft is such that even if he barely played a game in the last three years, he needn’t go through the domestic grind to reassert his credentials. He barged his way back into the team, as if he never spent time out of it.

His comeback was obvious and smooth. If any it seemed he had spent the time getting craftier and cleverer, sharpening his control and learning batsmen. The gulf of quality in the series was all too blatant—Bhuvneshwar and the rest, the medium-pacer from Meerut operating on a different plane, his understanding of the game at an elevated plank. Not just in terms of quantifiable yardsticks like wickets, economy rate, or average—he bargained numbers that were a cut above the rest—but in the sheer quality of his craft.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan went to the extent of even hailing him as the best “white-ball” bowler in contemporary cricket. “Give me someone bowling at 90 miles an hour and I will face them with my eyes shut, but while facing someone like Bhuvneshwar, one has to think so much,” he said in his Cricbuzz podcast. It’s hard to disagree with him. He has demolished the white-ball archetype of a bowler being all yorker-spewing macho-ness, painted the format with a Test-match-like subtlety. There are several exceedingly good all-format bowlers—Jasprit Bumrah, Pat Cummins and Kagiso Rabada the most instant faces—but no one has mastered all-format subtleness as Bhuvneshwar.

Sometimes, he conveys the impression of three different Bhuvneshwars. One for every format. Exceptional in each avatar, and in each one, subtlety is the defining factor. He does not swing the ball as prodigiously as Praveen Kumar, but he gets enough swing both ways to con batsmen. The seam movement he generates is not as sharp or swift as Bumrah’s, but there is deviation, often late, nonetheless. His bouncers are not the rapidest, but they climb awkwardly. The slowness of the slower balls is not drastic, because he is not ultra-quick to start with, but they are hard to decipher. The yorkers don’t threaten the toes, but ticks the off-stump.

Besides, there are more nuclear-tipped bows in his string—like the assortment of cutters and the knuckle ball (it’s difficult to name a better exponent of the off-cutter and the knuckle-ball). In short, as Vaughan remarked, “He can out-skill you. He can bowl the balls that you necessarily can’t prepare for.”

Or the ones you prepare but can’t prevent. Like the one he did Jason Roy with in the third ODI of the series. Struck for three boundaries of the first three balls, he pulled the length back a bit and seamed the ball into him. Initially, Bhuvneshwar was bowling fuller in search of lateral movement, but having bludgeoned for fours, Roy assumed he would bowl shorter. He did bowl short but not short enough to hang on the back-foot. And he completely discounted his ability to bend the ball back into him. Thus, he has the ability to lure you into a mistake, even if you seem to have (and not a definite has) a measure of him.

Here again, Roy had time to make the necessary adjustments. But he had too much time to consider his options. To ask himself two questions: Do I go forward or do I stay back? Do I defend or do I attack? He catches batsmen in two (often several) minds. They change their decision. In the process, the balance and positioning go off-kilter. Allied with precision and purpose, he daunts batsmen like few others.

So much so that it’s time the “throwback” tag was taken off him. And hailed him as the most new-age of practitioners. A pure post-modernist. For, there are few around who have had a grasp over the changing times and evolved accordingly. Some refused, some gave up, some strove, but few have excelled as Bhuvneshwar. Equally, his versatility should not be constricted to generalised classifications like ‘swing bowler’. Or a seamer, or a “white-ball” specialist (he has denied the latter possibility, asserting that he’s keen to play red-ball cricket). He is not one, but all. A transcendental genius of our times. An AB de Villiers with the ball, the one that can’t be pigeon-holed.

More importantly, his comeback would not have been better timed. Gazing the calendar and encounters lined up later this year — World Test Championship final, five-Test series in England and the World Cup — Bhuvneshwar offers a mouth-watering prospect. A missing link to several of Virat Kohli’s elusive endeavours — a series win in England, or winning an ICC event. Bhuvneshwar could be the Kohinoor in Kohli’s jewel-box.

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