At the Indian Premier League 2022 auction, only four of the ten franchises bid for India’s premier swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar. His old franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad, which hadn’t retained him ahead of the auction, was able to buy him back for Rs 4.2 crore, at less than half of his retention price of Rs 8.5 crore in 2018. It was an apt indication of Bhuvneshwar’s falling stock then.
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The previous IPL in 2021 had been his worst ever, with just six wickets from 11 matches at an average of 55.83. In IPL 2020, he’d managed all of four games. Back, hamstring, thigh… one after the other, parts of his body were giving in to the strain of a career that had begun way back in 2007. No wonder the familiar pop in his bowling had gone missing. Meanwhile, his most direct competitor for a spot in the Indian team, Deepak Chahar, had been repurchased by Chennai Super Kings for a chart-busting Rs 14 crore, following a fierce bidding war with Delhi Capitals and Rajasthan Royals.
But the cherry has swung in the other direction, and how. An injured Chahar has been out of action since February, and Bhuvneshwar’s body, and form, held up throughout IPL 2022, for 12 wickets at an economy of 7.34. And after scything through the South African top order in the ongoing series, he now has the joint-most powerplay wickets ever in Twenty20 internationals, alongside Samuel Badree and Tim Southee. And no other bowler has taken as many wickets in the powerplay – seven at an economy of just 4.68 – as he has this year. Four months before the T20 World Cup, the old warhorse is making a pretty strong case for being on the plane to Australia.
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Bhuvneshwar’s 33 T20I powerplay wickets have come at an average of 22.18 and an economy of 5.63. In an indication of just how solid these numbers are, the corresponding figures for Jasprit Bumrah are 20 strikes at 28.45 and 6.11, while Chahar’s nine powerplay victims have cost him 31.33 runs each at an economy of 7.62.
The IPL revival
The signs of a revival were there during the IPL. In an absolutely unforgiving mood against his former franchise, Delhi Capitals opener David Warner was forced to pay respect to Bhuvneshwar’s swing and accuracy at Brabourne Stadium. In an innings total of 207 in which every other bowler went for more than nine an over, Bhuvneshwar returned 4-1-25-1. But when an angry Warner made 92 against the franchise that had unceremoniously dumped him, and Rovman Powell clattered six towering sixes in 35 balls, Bhuvneshwar’s public-sector bank fixed-deposit reliability was a footnote in the face of such soaring stocks. Anyway, a T20 spell of run-a-ball unfortunately does not get the same limelight as a 50 off 30-35 balls does, but its match impact usually transcends the scoresheet.
Against Mumbai Indians, Bhuvneshwar bowled a wicket-maiden of sharp, pinpoint yorkers in the 19th over of the chase. Granted it came against Sanjay Yadav and, probably fittingly, Bumrah, but it was peak Bhuvneshwar, in complete command of all that he planned and executed. Although his powerplay sorcery has always overshadowed his competence from him at the death, he remains an intelligent, skilful bowler during the slog.
“The most important thing when you are bowling at death is to stay calm. Many times, if you concede to a boundary, you come under pressure. So if you can keep a calm mind, it will help you,” Bhuvneshwar had told team-mate Umran Malik after that game in a video for the IPL website.
“I was trying to bowl yorkers,” Bhuvneshwar had said. “I felt the yorker was the best option on that wicket to prevent run-scoring, if it was executed well. Luckily, all deliveries landed in a good spot.”
If anything defines Bhuvneshwar, apart from the famed swing, of course, it is this ability to land them in a good spot. Over after over, match after match, series after series, over the course of an international career that is nearly a decade long. Has there ever been a period where he hasn’t landed them on target? Injuries have over time temporarily taken away the zip off the pitch that makes his deliveries hit the bat hard even at a pace that has never been express. But even when the pace was down, as it was last year, he has never been easy to line up despite field restrictions. Even during his worst IPL last year, his economy was 7.97. Countless bowlers will be happy to go through an IPL with an economy below eight.
The pace has returned against South Africa, a remarkable feat for a bowler, with a history of injuries, who is into his 33rd year as well as his fitness handlers. His bowling coach during the IPL, Dale Steyn, has been impressed.
“He was lacking something a couple of months ago and he seems to have found it now. He looks a lot more confident now. When I was with him at the IPL a couple of months back, it looked like he had lost a little bit of pace,” Steyn told ESPNcricinfo.
“He was operating between 125 to 130kph, especially at the (2021) T20 World Cup. When we got to the IPL, he seemed to have upped his pace a little bit. He was operating between 133 and 137, sometimes touching 140, you know the one odd ball. I have played every game at the IPL. He got some rhythm, he got some form, and bang!
“He didn’t really come to any training sessions [at the IPL] because he was just managing his body, trusting himself,” Steyn said. “The day of the game he would walk to the middle and bowl probably three to four overs of warm-up before the game started, and he just be a true professional.”
Swing, seam, knuckle
The full range of those professional skills, honed until they’ve become second nature, has been on display against the South Africans. Defending just 149 in Cuttack, Bhuvneshwar broke the game open with a powerplay spell of 3-0-10-3.
It is one thing to have different plans for every batsman, it is quite another to get them perfectly in place as soon as the strike changes. Three outswingers to Temba Bavuma, all of varying movement and variations in line, were followed by three equally varied inducers to Reeza Hendricks. The inswingers had so much bite they also cut in further off the seam. And the ball that bowled Hendricks didn’t even really swing, the seam wobbled all the way into the pitch after which it cut in fatally. It was a lifetime’s worth of polished skill distilled into six deliveries.
The spell couldn’t have possibly got any better, but it would, also showing that Bhuvneshwar continues to evolve even at this stage of his career. Seeing that Dwaine Pretorius was going after him every ball, Bhuvneshwar bowled a knuckle ball with the seam tilted nearly horizontally towards backward point. A surprised Pretorius almost popped it straight back to Bhuvneshwar as the ball held off the surface and straightened. The next one was another knuckle ball, but there was variation within the variation, with the seam a lot more upright now. Pretorius ended up skying the attempted big hit to deep square leg.
It was the bowling equivalent of a bewitching, enticing symphony. The tempo had fallen for a haunting moment awhile ago, but it has long since picked up, and the last note is still several performances away.