Bhuvneshwar Kumar is an undisputed all-time great in Twenty20 cricket, but his career seems to be headed for an inexplicable premature end.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s name keeps surfacing every time India tours England, or for that matter, any place where the conditions assist new-ball movement.

While logical, these calls largely ignore the fact that he has not played any red-ball cricket since the Johannesburg Test of 2017/18. He does not play Ranji Trophy anymore. Nor has he played any 50-over cricket – domestic included – since the Paarl ODI of 2021/22.

Since that last tour of South Africa, thus, ’Bhuvi’ has been a one-format cricketer. But in that one format – Twenty20 – it is not an exaggeration to call him one of the greatest of all time.

Why is Bhuvneshwar Kumar an all-time great?

Bhuvneshwar’s 272 wickets may be the most by an Indian seamer in the format, but it is not a large number per se. For perspective, that is fewer than half of Dwayne Bravo’s world record of 615.

Of course, one may argue that Indians, unlike others, are restricted to Twenty20 Internationals and one league, the IPL. But Bhuvneshwar’s 90 wickets – an Indian T20I record for seamers – falls short of Shakib Al Hasan’s 140 or, among pacers, Tim Southee’s 134.

The phrase ‘all-time great’, thus, may seem an exaggeration. Yet, the longer-format parameters are not necessarily applicable to Twenty20, for here teams run out of balls quicker than they get bowled out.

Of the seamers who have bowled as many balls in T20Is as Bhuvneshwar, no one has a better economy rate than his 6.96. Include spinners, and Rashid Khan (6.16), Shahid Afridi (6.63), and Shakib (6.79) make it.

But the aggregate numbers tell only part of the story. Over time, Bhuvneshwar established himself as a specialist in a specific role – that of a powerplay bowler.

Of his 298.3 overs in T20Is, a whopping 183 – a world record – have been in the first six overs of the innings. This also amounts to 61.3 percent of his career – about 2.3 of the four overs he can bowl every match. In other words, he often starts a third over often inside the first six.

It is not about the volume he has bowled, either. If one puts a 100-powerplay-over restriction, Bhuvneshwar is the only bowler to concede fewer runs than balls bowled in T20I history. Not only that: barring him (5.65), the only others to have kept the economy under seven are Samuel Badree (6.29), Mitchell Starc (6.38), and Imad Wasim (6.51).

He has not been restricted to containment in the powerplay overs either. His bowling average (22.02) is also the best with the same cut-off, though the gap with the redoubtable Badree (23.09) is not as pronounced.

One, of course, may argue that only about a third of Bhuvneshwar’s 263 Twenty20 matches have been for India. There is also the fact that the chasm between internationals and leagues is not as pronounced in Twenty20 as it is in the longer formats.

But in all Twenty20, too, Bhuvneshwar has gone for 5.92 an over inside the powerplay – yet again, the only bowler to have kept it under a run a ball, albeit with a 3oo-over cut-off. Use the same cut-off, and only Sunil Narine (6.03) and Sohail Tanvir (6.49) have gone for under seven. And only David Willey (26.06) has a better powerplay average than his 27.34.

Not surprisingly, he has the best IPL powerplay economy rate (6.08) with a 1,000-ball cut-off. The only others below 6.50 – Dale Steyn (6.26) and Lasith Malinga (6.27) – now work as coaches in the league.

Too much data? Perhaps. But all that establishes the fact that Bhuvneshwar is the greatest powerplay bowler in the history of Twenty20 cricket.

A curious decline

Ahead of the 2022 Asia Cup, India had identified three death-over specialists – Bumrah, Harshal Patel, and Arshdeep Singh. Of them, Bumrah and Harshal missed the tournament.

At the Asia Cup, India had little option but to back Bhuvneshwar at the death in two separate matches. While has had his moments at the death, the numbers had fallen away over the past few years – 10.48 in IPL 2018, 10.27 in 2019, 9.84 in 2020, 10.46 in 2021, 8.60 in 2022 (and later, 9.17 in 2023).

When Harshal returned for the T20Is, against Australia, India left out Arshdeep in Mohali, and backed Bhuvneshwar at the death again. It did not work out.

With 16.4-3-90-4 in the league stage, he seemed to have turned things around at the T20 World Cup – until he proved to be as inadequate against Jos Buttler and Alex Hales after India put up a woefully inadequate 168-6 in the semi-final.

He has played only twice since then, in the New Zealand tour that followed immediately afterwards.

Having not played 50-over cricket for well over a year, Bhuvneshwar was probably not expected to the Indian squad for this year’s World Cup on home soil. Not picking him for the ODIs in the West Indies, thus, makes sense, as it would if he is left out of the Asia Cup squad.

However, not picking Bhuvneshwar for the T20I squad for the West Indies tour does hint at an imminent end of road. With India focusing on checking out the match fitness of Bumrah and Prasidh Krishna, he might not have made it to the Ireland tour.

But perhaps his most significant omission has been from the squad for the Asian Games, which overlap with the World Cup. The selectors have almost certainly shortlisted their 19 World Cup probables – 15 for the squad, the usual four reserves – and used the rest of the pool for the Asian Games.

Even if there are five fast bowlers in these 19 – apart from Hardik Pandya, that is – they are likely to be Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, and Prasidh. Jaydev Unadkat, too, seems ahead in the pecking order.

Already unlikely to be in contention because of his hiatus from the format, Bhuvneshwar was an unlikely candidate for the World Cup. However, had he been part of India’s T20I future plans, he would have been picked ahead of one of Arshdeep, Mukesh Kumar, Avesh Khan, and Shivam Mavi for the Asian Games.

That was perhaps why the news cycles sprung into activity when he dropped the second word from “Indian cricketer” on his Instagram profile.