England had one last chance to win at Trent Bridge. India were 220 in front, seven wickets down, with still more than 40 overs left in the day. The new ball was 13 deliveries old and had just claimed Ravindra Jadeja. The match had stumbled on it’s way to a draw and England knew this was their last chance of winning. Their bowlers put in one last effort. Their sound went from mute to 11. Every single delivery was ooheed, aahed, moaned and groaned. Joe Root found a reason to be as close to the wicket as possible, clapping and yapping, right in the ear of the young number nine.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar seemed to barely notice. He batted the same way right through and finished unbeaten on 63.
Allan Donald once said of Bhuvneshwar: “He is a very quiet guy, does what he needs to do.”
Sachin Tendulkar’s record against debutants in Test cricket might lead you to think he underestimates young players. It is probably not true, his record is mostly like that because he has faced more debutants than other cricketers. But it is a feeling that some had. When Bhuvneshwar bowled to him, it was not his first class debut, it was his 13th game. But he did not have an IPL team. He was not an Indian age-group cricketer. He did not come from a big school, club, academy or city. There was no hype or marketing deals, he was just a swing bowler with a tidy action.
Tendulkar may not have underestimated him. But he was dismissed by him. For his first ever Ranji trophy duck.
Others have underestimated him. In fact, his parents did. It was his sister who suggested he be pushed towards cricket. Even his coach, the metronomic Venkatesh Prasad thought he would be an ideal third bowler for India. In the first Test a five-wicket haul and matching 50s was not enough for him to be Man of the Match. He is at his third IPL team. Yet somehow this overlooked, underestimated player is India’s most important this series.
219 for 6 was the score in the 2012-13 Duleep Trophy semi final when Bhuvneshwar came in. North Zone had scored 451 in the first innings. For Central Zone to make the final, they needed to score 233 more runs in that innings, as an outright win looked unlikely. Mohammad Kaif had just departed for 63, the top score so far that innings. Mahesh Rawat put on a small partnership with Bhuvneshwar, before departing for 71. All North Zone needed were three wickets and all Central Zone needed was 201 runs. The invitations to the final were all but written.
Bhuvneshwar rewrote them. He shielded the tail. Batted resolutely. Farmed the strike. Scored at a sensible pace. On 99, with his team still behind, he refused singles that would have taken him to his maiden first-class hundred, because they were not the right thing for the team. Bhuvneshwar was eventually dismissed for 128. But only after a tenth-wicket partnership of 127. It earned a lead of 18 runs. And his Central Zone went to the final.
Bhuvneshwar is straight. Exceptionally straight. His bat, his front arm, his strokes, his wrist, his crease position and his posture. Straight. Probably the only thing that is not straight is the the ball once it comes out of his hand. He has the magic wrist. The sort of wrist position that old bowlers drool over when leaning on bars because their knees can no longer hold them up.
It is the wrist that has got him there. Asian batsmen get their wrists festishized by cricket writers the world over, but Bhuvneshwar’s wrist is not wristy, it is swingy. If he did not have the magic wrist he would not be playing. He does not have any height. He has very little pace. He is not a reverse swing merchant. Since uncovered pitches disappeared, the medium-fast bowlers have become rarer and rarer to find, like the seam of a Kookaburra after 35 overs.
To be a regular international bowler these days at Bhuvneshwar’s pace, you need to be something special. Just to make it, you need to be. All the academies in all the lands are not looking for the next canny seam bowler, they are looking for height and pace. Movement is an afterthought, and by the way they think, can be taught to any lumbering monster with a fast arm.
But every now and then, a slower bowler crawls up through the broken bodies of the wannabe 90mph gang and shows the way. Mohammad Asif was one. Stuart Clark was another. And then there was Praveen Kumar.
We might never see Praveen Kumar again. Asif was the surgeon. Clark the slippery lawyer. Praveen was the stoner philosopher. The ball wobbled hypnotically. Batsmen were left wondering which way it would finally dart off. And then his seam position was so perfect, so exact, so romantic, that he also took a bit of seam as well. In six angry beautiful Test matches, Praveen averaged 25 with the ball.
Tragically Praveen was not meant for Test cricket, at least, right now. He is an artist, a poet, a self saboteur. And he disappeared. But he had a bowling partner that was like a little brother. Bhuvneshwar Kumar. They played together at Central Zone, UP and at Victoria Park club in Meerut.
Kumar the junior saw Kumar the senior all the time. It was like he had an inbuilt mentor and hero. A swing bowling allrounder who did not bowl quick enough to excite selectors. Kumar the junior also went one better than his hero, because he was a more stable person. He did not need to worry about rage to fire him up. He did not fly off unpredictably. He was the Kumar you could take home to mum, or plan the next few years around. The white knight to Praveen’s dark knight.
Christmas Day , 2012: a slight swing bowler plays in a T20 match against arch enemies Pakistan. His first over has a wicket. He takes three more. In his four overs he only concedes nine runs, yet India still lose.
England are 73 for 2 chasing 285 at Kochi. Kevin Pietersen is on a-run-a-ball 42. Bhuvneshwar brings back a ball and bowls him. Two balls later, Bhuvneshwar moves one away from Eoin Morgan who is edging behind. He had already taken Alastair Cook’s wicket. He finishes with 3 for 29 and England lose massively.
Chris Gayle made the world go crazy. 175 off 66 balls. Songs were written about it before he finished it. Bowlers were used as dental floss. But in his 175, only 11 runs were scored off Bhuvneshwar. In that match, while he had to run through the remains of his bowling unit, he finished with 23 runs off his 24 balls.
In the Champions Trophy, Bhuvneshwar never bowled a full ten overs. He only got three overs in the final. But he also went at only 3.90 an over against the world’s most powerful batting line-ups.
The Port of Spain’s rain shortened one of the many ODIs between India and Sri Lanka. India made 119 for 3 in their allocated 29 overs. Bhuvneshwar took the new ball. He took the first four wickets. He took 4 for 8. Sri Lanka lost.
Duncan Fletcher was a man who loved his 90mph bowlers as much as anyone. He also likes height. But Bhuvneshwar does tick his other two boxes. Movement both ways and being able to strengthen the tail with the bat. There are simply no bowlers in India who tick all the boxes, or many of the boxes. But what India has produced consistently throughout their history is swing bowlers.
In Perth, 2008, Australia took in pace, India took in swing. Madan Lal took three wickets in the 1983 World Cup final: Haynes, Richards and Gomes. Adelaide 2003 had a six-wicket haul for Ajit Agarkar. Sreesanth took another six at the Wanderers. And Zaheer Khan‘s nine-wicket haul at Trent Bridge in 2007 won a Test. While the world spent over a decade kissing the feat of India’s many batting Gods, it was Zaheer many heroic spells on flat pitches that took India to No. 1.
Bhuvneshwar is just in a long line of swing bowlers. But of recent times, many of them have been tampered with or discarded. RP Singh, Ashish Nehra and Irfan Pathan will all retire having never got the most out of themselves or won nearly enough Tests for their country. Some have been told to bowl faster. Some have been told to change the way they are.
India is a country that creates swing bowlers, and often destroys swing bowlers.
Bhuvneshwar’s first Test was against Australia. He opened up with the first four overs. Then didn’t bowl again for 60 overs. He bowled 13 overs for the entire match, all in the first innings. MS Dhoni, it seemed, had underrated him.
But when Bhuvneshwar came to the wicket in the first innings, India were only 26 ahead. He was batting at No. 10. He would make a composed 38. He would use a straight bat. He would be sensible. He would let the senior partner make the decisions. He would let the senior partner make a double century. He would let the senior partner end Australia’s hopes. He would outlast the senior partner.
And at some stage during that 140-run partnership, the senior partner, his captain, must have looked at the other end at his new ball specialist from the badlands and thought, this is a man I can rely on.
The first ball Bhuvneshwar faced came flying back in at him. India’s best batsman this tour had just been outfoxed by James Anderson. The lead was barely 200. And England had the new ball that was 16 balls old. Bhuvneshwar played it with a straight bat. There was no discernible proof to say he was not the next Indian batting sensation, so technically perfect was his defence. His back foot drive off Anderson was just as correct. In fact, through the off side he was a batsman, forget where he was in the order.
It was not until he got to 50 that he looked like he was slogging a bit more. But, you are at Lord’s, you are in form, why not smack Ben Stokes back over his head to bring up your first fifty? He had taken the lead from just over 200 to just over 300. Jadeja had managed to sticky tape his technique together and trust himself to counterattack. But it looked like his innings could end any ball. Bhuvneshwar’s looked like it would end when his job was done.
In this series he has taken a five-for, a six-for, made an important 36 and three fifties. Almost every single time India have needed him, he has been there. He is slow and unsexy. He is not tall, or a natural leader. And he is no one’s first pick.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar just does what he needs to do.