INDIA TOUR OF AUSTRALIA, 2018-19
Bhuvneshwar Kumar finished 2018 with his worst figures ever in the 50-over format © Getty
Bhuvneshwar Kumar revealed on Monday that he hadn’t been a “100 per cent” for any of the Tests against Australia. It put an end to a lot of speculation regarding why he didn’t even seem to come close to being picked in the playing XI for any of the Tests, including on the green pitch in Perth. It also brought some closure to the ambiguity that’s surrounded the lanky swing and seam bowler over the last 10 months or so. Not many outside the Indian dressing-room have after all been able to make out just what has been wrong with Bhuvaneshwar.
And it’s been way too obvious that he’s not been the same. Like in these cases, the numbers don’t lie. He started 2018 off in great style of course. He ran through the South African top-order on the first day of the series in Cape Town and capped it with the man-of-the-match award in the famous win in Johannesburg. Then came the injury to his lower back that ruled him out of initially the first three Tests against England, and then the whole series. He did return to play a few ODIs in the Asia Cup and against the West Indies, but he looked well below par and very vividly under-cooked.
Not surprisingly, he finished the year with his worst figures ever in the 50-over format. Not only did his 11 victims in 14 matches come at a very expensive rate of 48.81 apiece, he also went at an economy rate of 5.31, well beyond his usual miserly returns. Bhuvneshwar’s back troubles had been diagnosed well before he returned from England though. They’d come to light before the IPL and that meant he didn’t play all the matches or as regularly as he usually does for the Sunrisers.
His numbers there too were modest, with 9 wickets at 39.33 and an economy nearing 8. Just compare it to his 2017, where he ran through sides and finished with 26 wickets at 14.09 and an economy of 7.05. That was also the season he developed the reputation of being the second-best yorker bowler in the country behind Jasprit Bumrah.
It makes you wonder how bad the back must have been during the IPL and if he should have been playing at all. He certainly didn’t help his team’s cause and perhaps not his own either. Following the IPL, he missed the Afghanistan Test and then was on the bench for the first two ODIs in England. Then came his interesting selection for the third ODI in Headingley. A clearly rusty Bhuvneshwar hardly made an impact on the contest during his nondescript spell of 7 overs. His speeds were in the low 120s and his bowling looked to have snuck down a few significant steps in terms of quality and skill.
In hindsight, him playing the ODI in Leeds was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Indians. Imagine him ambling up to bowl at those speeds in Edgbaston in place of either a Shami or an Ishant Sharma, or even an Umesh Yadav. Or worse, doing a Zaheer Khan and limping off on the opening day of the first Test.
The rise of Bumrah has meant that India haven’t missed Bhuvneshwar as much as they would have imagined, the way they would have thought midway through last year. But the rise of Bumrah has also meant that Bhuvneshwar and his performances have come under the scanner a lot more. In Adelaide, he was very candid about why he wasn’t considered for selection for the Tests.
“See, I was fit but I couldn’t say that I was a 100 per cent. Because in Test matches, it’s a five-day match, so I really didn’t know I would be able to go through that thing. What was good was we had bowlers who could play at that time and I got time to be 100 per cent fit again. I wasn’t really sure that time,” he said.
You wonder how sure Kohli & Co would have been even if he had been a 100 per cent, based on how he’d looked all year. At the time, playing Umesh Yadav over Bhuvneshwar seemed completely a left-field move, but was it a sign of how the management views him now, or at least one that isn’t at his best. Did the team’s think-tank leave him out because he wasn’t fit enough to board the flight or was he left out as a flight-risk? He hadn’t looked great in the T20Is, and there was always the sceptre of his outing at the SCG four years ago, when he looked completely out of depth and earned comparisons with Ian Healy’s speed in the nets, courtesy Mark Taylor in the Channel 9 commentary box.
“Bhuvi hasn’t played a lot of four-day cricket recently and Umesh took ten wickets in his last Test and was in good bowling rhythm. So that was the reason behind picking Umesh over Bhuvi,” was the explanation that Kohli had given when asked post the Perth defeat. And rhythm is an aspect of his bowling that Bhuvaneshwar admitted was lacking during the Tests and even in Sydney two days ago.
“Match rhythm is totally different when it comes to bowling. I was trying everything to be in rhythm in the nets. But it can’t be a 100 per cent when you compare to a match. It wasn’t great in the last match but it wasn’t bad as well. It can improve,” he said.
When pressed on what he’d been doing exactly to regain his rhythm, Bhuvneshwar spoke about how he’d been working on a mixture of things, from running to weight training to bowling lengthy spells in the nets. And Bhuvneshwar has been the one bowler who’s been spotted sending down a spell pretty much every time India have trained on tour. Though seeing him do so did add slightly to the intrigue of why he wasn’t being considered, he looked quite often to be below his best even in the nets.
“In the nets I wasn’t planning or preparing to bowl in the ODIs. I was preparing like I have to play in any of the Tests. There wasn’t anything specific that I could do. But it was just normal bowling and increasing the number of overs. If I was bowling 4 overs (to start with), then go to 6, then 8, then 10. The key thing for me is to be niggle-free and be in bowling rhythm,” he said.
Bhuvneshwar’s pace was up in Sydney. He was more early 130s than mid 120s as he’d been for most of last year, save the start. But by his own admission, he didn’t look quite right throughout. The start was great as he knocked over Aaron Finch and finished with 1/12 in 5 overs. It was a classic Bhuvaneshwar Kumar opening spell. In the MS Dhoni era, he would have wheeled on for a few more, if not all 10. He looked in that kind of rhythm. Perhaps it would have been in his best interests.
But Bhuvneshwar is now a more well-rounder bowler, and is expected to return in similar rhythm towards the backend. It is here that his rustiness showed up significantly. Suddenly the pace wasn’t as consistent as it was earlier, and the execution of his variations, including the yorker, not as impressive as it’d been for nearly two years. He missed the mark more often than he hit it, and allowed Marcus Stoinis to get away, conceding 54 runs in his second lot of five overs. He was seen doing specific drills to perfect his yorker on Monday and even spoke about it later. Some experts have related his recurring back issues to the recently inconsistent execution of his yorkers. Maybe then, the SCG was just him feeling his way back in.
Bumrah’s absence for this series is a sign of how much Indian cricket values him. It is also a sign that the men in-charge would like to see for sure who the rest of their fast bowling arsenal will be at the World Cup. Hence, the experiment with giving Mohammed Shami another go at ODIs, the extended run with left-armer Khaleel Ahmed and the inclusion of Mohammad Siraj.
You’ll still expect Bhuvneshwar to make it to England if he’s niggle-free and fit. But like he cleared out the uncertainty regarding his fitness, it’s high time he did so with how Indian cricket views him presently with ball in hand.