There are chances no Pakistan Cricket fan would ever forget Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the carnage he inflicted in the first spell of his international career. It has been a story told so many times to be repeated here but revisiting the past, when the armoury would call for one, has its own sweet drama.
The M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru is easily one of the most passionate cricket venues in the world and every Indian success is celebrated with vigor and panache. When the pacer from Uttar Pradesh, all of 22, was moving the ball prodigiously, it was met with raucous cheers and celebration. Nasir Jamshed, seeing the ball move away sharply, positioned himself to play the drive on the up. Kumar then slowly got the ball into the left-hander, taking the stumps for a walk.
It the second over of his spell, Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal found themselves in a long walk back to the pavilion, and the MS Dhoni-led India, who had to ask Virat Kohli as their second-change pacer, found their next superstar who would be worth every single penny in helpful conditions in the years to come.
Bhuvi would go on to show that - both home and away, on venues helpful for his kind of bowling and otherwise too. In the recent England limited-overs leg, he was cut above the rest even though sixes were flying with an insane regularity. In the ODIs, where 300 were scored five out of six times, he had an economy rate of 4.66 despite operating in both powerplay and death. For reference, apart from Bhuvi, only Moeen Ali had an economy below 6 in the entire series from either side. The same was true for the T20Is as well, with the UP seamer conceding runs at 6.39 - the best from both sides. All of that at an average of 22.50 and 28.75 respectively.
Since the resumption of international Cricket for India in November 2020, the bowlers have been the most disappointing cog in the wheel in both the 50-overs format. Aaron Finch and David Warner feasted on them in the ODIs and Matthew Wade almost killed them in the T20Is. The spinners were treated like school cricketers and the pacers, including Bumrah, lost their dignity for a while. But this is no new phenomenon. As ESPNCricinfo noted, only Scotland and Bangladesh had a worse bowling average than India's 51.52 in the first powerplay from January 2019 to the end of 2020, lightening an aspect of India’s bowling which was always their strongest suite when Bumrah-Bhuvneshwar bowled in tandem.
The latest ODI series emphasized it once again, with Prasidh Krishna partnering from one end, England caressed through, as is their want, to single-handedly dominate Indians in the first two ODIs. 80/0 in the 1st ODI followed by 59/0 in the second was the outcome largely forgettable but the way India bounced back in the third encounter, under extreme dew conditions, was laudable. That was possible because Bhuvi found the way back in the only way he knew - breaking the sticks on swinging deliveries to keep the game wide open. The change of variation, sans the swing, and bowling a regular dose of good length balls to keep the batsmen guessing was a feature that the pacer didn’t really master in the first half of his career, something that was in show abundantly.
As Michael Vaughan rightfully pointed out, Kumar is probably the most skillful white-ball bowler of the generation, even though he slips under the carpet more often than not in front of Mohammed Shami’s regular striking ability and the rustic charm of everything that is done by Jasprit Bumrah. Kumar is never the showstopper but the sidekick a team would always want as their prime arsenal.
“I got what I wanted in these games, but there's always something to improve on, like it could be variations or fitness. As a team what we wanted to get, what we wanted to achieve, we got it. If you ask me individually, there's always something... could be variations or the knuckleball that I've been wanting to improve,” Bhuvneshwar said in the post-match press conference.
Once Jasprit Bumrah returns to the fold, India will sacrifice Prasidh Krishna, who operated at the level required of him, and go back to the combo of Bhuvneshwar-Bumrah which had once put the fear of God into the opposition minds in the three-year period between 2016 and 2018. Mohammed Shami can be the third seamer but asking to open the bowling can’t be the way forward. It is a combination that has the potential to upset the cart once again while rendering the narrative backward furthermore in ODI cricket.
However, the biggest question that is brewing must be for Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s fitness - the sole differentiator that has made him a secondary figure in Indian cricket. From missing out the England Test series in 2018, where he could have been a huge asset, to injuring his left hamstring during the World Cup, from operating for a sports hernia to suffering a thigh injury that ended his campaign in the 2020 Indian Premier League, Bhuvi has been a mixture non-respondent limbs and ligaments.
I was unfit for a long time, so I realized that fitness is something I have to maintain if I want to play regular cricket.
"I don't decide on the long-term future. Whenever I have in the past, things haven't gone my way, whether it's due to injury or form. Workload management is something I will focus on and the team management also tries and does its best. I was unfit for a long time, so I realized that fitness is something I have to maintain if I want to play regular cricket. I know that there's an England tour in front along with other series, so I will try to keep myself fit," Bhuvneshwar said.
It is no more an option now. Indian Cricket needs Bhuvneshwar Kumar as much as the pacer needs Indian Cricket to re-establish his credentials as one of the finest players of the generation. He has shown a glimpse of his endurance and skill, now living up to it for a long haul would determine how much Indian team will be benefited from his genius.