Bhuvneshwar Kumar started out as a medium pacer who could swing the ball, but after a lot of work, he has added enough pace to his arsenal to be a threat in all conditions, across formats.
In 2014, after India’s ill-fated tour of England, Kumar emerged as the one big positive – his 19 wickets at 26.63 and three half-centuries meant his stocks couldn’t be higher. Yet, in nearly two years since that final Test at The Oval, he played just the one Test, against Australia in Sydney in early 2015.
An ankle injury first put him on the sidelines, and on his return, a more worrying problem seemed to crop up – an inability to swing the ball, which was always Kumar’s USP.
There was more pace, yes. A steady 130s bowler, he touched the 140s frequently after his return, but if that was coming at the cost of his gift of swing, was it worth it?
One journalist even asked him the question point blank, after a ODI against South Africa in October 2015: “Have you lost your swing?” The reply was typically simple: “No, I don’t think I’ve lost my swing.”
The IPL makes for an accurate yardstick to measure how far Kumar has come since those worrying days. In IPL 2016, he finished as the highest wicket-taker, with 23 scalps for Sunrisers Hyderabad, bowling at pace, moving it both ways. As the spearhead – following Ashish Nehra’s injuries – he came into his own, and was effective in both the Powerplay and at the death. He followed that up with 26 wickets in the 2017 edition of the tournament, once again finishing as the top wicket-taker.
Meanwhile, he returned to the Test set-up, buoyed by the IPL showing, and scalped six wickets against the Windies in Gros Islet. He has played nine Tests since 2016, returning 31 wickets at an excellent 18.5. Kumar is a star now, and the shock on social media recently when he was dropped for the second Test in South Africa, having been India’s best bowler in the first Test in Cape Town with six wickets, is a testament to his rise.
“The IPL has helped improve me as a bowler, especially in the death overs,” he told Wisden.com. “It’s a short format, but a long season and two months is never easy to play. If we’ve to survive those two months, if you’ve to win the tournament, you’ve to do well – as a strike bowler, I really had to do well to ensure matches are won.
“Those responsibilities, that need to do well regularly in a long season, those are the things that improved me as a bowler, and the team as well.”
Kumar continues to maintain that the swing was never lost. And he never really specifically worked on improving his pace – it is a function of reaching his physical peak, he says.
“I’ve always been able to swing it both ways,” said Kumar. “But I always wanted to add that pace. And I didn’t know how to. I worked with the trainers and the physios and what I’ve learnt is that it comes naturally with age and maturity. The pace I have now (is because) I am at the peak of my physical attributes right now. Everything comes from that physical maturity, it improved the pace a bit.”
The 28-year-old’s current standing is reflected in his BCCI contract. Last month, the board announced a new A+ bracket, featuring regular players in all three formats, who will take home $US1 million. Kumar was one of just five players in the list, even as the likes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ravichandran Ashwin and Cheteshwar Pujara were placed in the lower bracket.
When David Warner, the Hyderabad captain, was banned by the BCCI following his role in the ball-tampering affair that engulfed Australia, Kumar was named vice-captain.
Hyderabad have so far coped well enough without Warner, winning three of their four matches. However, in their most recent outing, they lost to Kings XI Punjab, falling short by 15 runs in chase of 194. Despite the seemingly small margin, Hyderabad were never in the chase, and one couldn’t help but notice the absence of the impetus provided by Warner.
Kumar, typically, wouldn’t hear a word of it. “It’s difficult to say he would have helped. He’s a very good batsman and has done very well for us in the last few years. But it wouldn’t be right on the other batsmen (that we have now) to say that having him would have helped,” argued Kumar.
“Whoever is playing, they’re good players – that’s why they are playing. They have done so well for other franchises, and that’s why Sunrisers picked them. So yes, it’s all about accepting things happened, and moving on. You cannot replace a batsman like Warner, but we have other batsmen who can do well in this format as well.”
Kumar’s career could come full circle in August when England host India in another Test series. The importance of the tour is not lost on the Indians – Virat Kohli, the captain, has already stated his desire to play county cricket in preparation for the tour, while the likes of Pujara and Ishant Sharma have already begun their county campaigns.
Asked if he would consider a similar approach, Kumar was coy. “I really don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. Once the IPL is done, whatever offer is there, we’ll see after that,” he said. “It’s a long tournament, and I know I will be tired after that. I’ll rest and recover, and then see about that, see how my body is, see what the situation is.”
Whatever he decides, one thing is for certain – the swing is back, there is decent pace, he’s slowly grooming himself into a leader, and it could all come to a head in England.