By R Kaushik in Mirpur
The spinners have got all the plaudits, but the seamer has been crucial at the top of India’s bowling tree at the ICC World Twenty20
India’s all-win record from Group 2 of the Super 10s has largely been fashioned by the spinning duo of Amit Mishra and R Ashwin, and the batting group in which Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have been outstanding. No one within the team set-up, however, is unaware of how influential Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been in India's first four matches at the ICC World Twenty20 2014.
Let’s face it. Bhuvneshwar will never send the pulse racing. He won’t exhilarate or excite or grab eyeballs, because he is not an out-and-out fast bowler who makes batsmen duck and weave and sway out of the way with a steady diet of short-pitched bowling. He doesn’t have the variety of a Lasith Malinga – his blonde, unruly, curly mop et al – or the left-arm angle of Mitchell Starc.
Everything about Bhuvneshwar is understated. He talks very little, cuts a slight figure and if the uninitiated run into him off the field, dressed in casuals, they won’t so much as even suspect that here is an international cricketer, and a very good one at that.
Perhaps, his persona is one reason for Bhuvneshwar’s success. Perhaps, opponents tend to take him a little lightly because he is not a big, intimidating man with big, intimidating weapons. But he has that precious and fast-dying commodity – genuine swing – which has lured many unsuspecting batsmen to their doom.
Fears that Bhuvneshwar had lost his famed swing started to surface during the One-Day International series in New Zealand in January when, in five games, he took only four wickets at 59.75. His strike-rate was a wicket every 11 overs, his economy 5.43 which is not awful in the modern era but which is more than half a run worse than his career economy of 4.74 from 35 games.
As much as the numbers, it was his inability to get the ball to move in the air that caused a little bit of concern. Bhuvneshwar will never fire batsmen out, but his skill-sets ensure that he always asks questions with the brand new white Kookaburra. The ease with which New Zealand’s openers, as well as Kane Williamson at No. 3 and Ross Taylor a spot below, played him were perceived to be serious, early warning signals.
The drought extended to the Asia Cup when, in four matches and 47.2 overs, he only took two wickets in Fatullah and at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in Mirpur combined. Had he outlived his utility? With Mahendra Singh Dhoni reluctant to use him at the death because his lack of pace and his modest variations made him a sitting duck, was Bhuvneshwar past his use-by date? Did he have the nous and the hunger to rediscover himself? No, no and yes are the respective answers, on the evidence of what he has dished out in the World T20 thus far.
Bhuvneshwar hasn’t been the most prolific wicket-taker – he has three scalps from the four matches – but he has created the pressure that has allowed the spinners to do their thing. Of all bowlers who have played more than one match in the competition, he comfortably heads the economy charts at 4.33 runs per over. In 12 overs, he has gone for just 52 runs, including one astonishing spell of 3-0-3-0 against West Indies when he bowled 16 dot balls out of 18 to Dwayne Smith and Chris Gayle. Yes, you read it right – to Dwayne Smith and Chris Gayle, no less.
Two games later, he had figures of 3-0-7-1 against Australia, rendering Aaron Finch and David Warner practically scoreless. These four are easily the four most destructive openers in Twenty20 International cricket, who look for three strokes to each delivery and for whom a single is the least appealing scoring option. To keep such attack-minded batsmen quiet for prolonged periods must mean Bhuvneshwar had done something right.
That ‘something’ had to do with the return of the swing. Under the Sher-e-Bangla lights, he has got the ball to go away from right and left-hand batsman alike. He has shown such remarkable control that he has only sent down two wides despite getting the ball to go considerably. With a little more luck, he would have had plenty of West Indies wickets to show; Smith and Gayle could hardly lay bat to ball, so late was the swing.
“Kumar swung the ball both in and out and he bowled good areas. We know he was bowling to the two most dangerous openers in this format of the game. He kept them quiet,” said Darren Sammy, the West Indies captain, of Bhuvneshwar’s spell.
And while Mishra and Ashwin have picked up two Man of the Match awards apiece, Dhoni has openly acknowledged the role played by Bhuvneshwar at the top of the bowling tree. “What is important for him is to use the new ball well, make sure he does not give too many loose deliveries,” said Dhoni the other night. “Whenever there is a bit of help, he should make sure he is bowling in the right areas. His length is very crucial and he is able to swing the ball.”
Bhuvneshwar has struck up a nice tandem with Ashwin while operating with the new ball – India has used Bhuvneshwar and Mohammed Shami as the opening pair only once thus far in the competition in three matches – and the pressure from both ends has resulted in a steady stream of wickets, one of the reasons why India is the only team to have conceded less than 140 in each of its Super 10 games.
Neither Bhuvneshwar nor India, however, can afford to rest on their laurels. Whatever has happened thus far, the all-win record, will all count for nought on Friday (April 4) when India runs into South Africa in the second semifinal. As ever, the focus will be on the spinners to run through a side that hasn’t won a single knockout game in World T20 history, but Bhuvneshwar will be plotting a coup of his own. Quietly, in keeping with his character.