Bhuvneshwar finds rhythm, Bumrah redemption against Pakistan
Wednesday was to be the first real test of Bhuvneshwar Kumar's intense rehabilitation programme for a back injury that forced him out of the England Tests. This was, after all, his second straight outing in less than 24 hours since the Hong Kong match.
This was also going to be a test for Bhuvneshwar's ability on flat, unresponsive decks where there's little or no swing on offer. On Tuesday against Hong Kong, he toiled for nine wicketless overs that were devoid of proper rhythm. Of those, only his first delivery - a thick edge that flew past Shikhar Dhawan off Nizakat Khan - was a genuine wicket-taking delivery.
Prior to the Pakistan game, he averaged 48.5 and took a wicket once every 61 balls (essentially once in three matches) in the Powerplay since the start of 2017. This was the third worst among bowlers who have bowled 500 balls or more in this period. So was there a case for India to rest him, in order for him to prepare him the Super Fours? And play the more bustling Khaleel Ahmed, who relies on pace and bounce?
Ahead of the Hong Kong clash, Rohit Sharma insisted they were looking for continuity. That Bhuvneshwar was picked for the Pakistan clash may have also been down to the bowler's own assessment of how he held up after having spent 50 overs in the sapping Dubai heat just the night before. As for his bowling numbers, it's unlikely Bhuvneshwar would have been perturbed by them. Over the years, he's added pace to his repertoire, and has married it with accuracy and excellent variations like the knuckleball. These factors were key to Pakistan's openers being kept quiet in the Powerplay.
Bhuvneshwar found a superb new-ball partner in Jasprit Bumrah, who replaced Shardul Thakur, who had been erratic against Hong Kong. In just two overs, he showed what India had missed during the England ODIs - control, exaggerated angles and bounce - which he was forced to sit out due to a finger injury sustained against Ireland.
Bumrah was up against Fakhar Zaman, who had bruised India with a match-winning hundred in the Champions Trophy final last year. This was their first face-off since that Bumrah reprieve - the wicket off a no-ball that has since been inducted into the India-Pakistan rivalry narrative. Since that day, Bumrah has bowled 11 no-balls from 2760 legal deliveries, which isn't among the worst globally. But no other Indian bowler has fared worse.
Whether memories from that day crossed both their minds, we wouldn't know, but Bumrah hit hard lengths early and stifled the openers early in the innings. Fakhar played out six dot balls, and only two had come off the first two overs. The tangible rewards were reaped at the other end by Bhuvneshwar.
He had an early wicket when Imam-Ul-Haq advanced and swiped at the ball,only to lose his shape and get a thick edge to MS Dhoni. An early breakthrough had been taken by Bhuvneshwar; his first in 35.3 overs. After playing out a maiden from Bumrah's first over, Fakhar tried to go on the offensive during his next. Twice, Fakhar lined himself to play his favourite cross-batted heave but was denied that because he couldn't generate the free swing to play to the leg side. The bad balls were far and few, so they needed to be manufactured. But Bumrah was relentless at the other end, delivering a second maiden on a trot to leave Pakistan searching for runs with the scoreboard reading 3 for 1 after four overs.
Fakhar now tried to play the short-arm jab off Bhuvneshwar in a bid to break the shackles. What resulted was a top edge that looped to midwicket, who pouched it safely. India had taken two big scalps inside five overs, as the early Powerplay stifle left Pakistan no choice but to go into rebuild mode. As it turned out, Pakistan never quite recovered from it and were bowled out for 162 in 43.1 overs.
Bhuvneshwar's final figures of 7-1-15-3 were somewhat a validation of his recovery and ability to reinvent his wheel on unresponsive tracks. This also in some ways erased the ghosts from earlier in the season, where he was brought in hastily for the deciding England ODI in what was seen as a desperate move, which failed emphatically.
The last time India had done something like that, just before the 2015 World Cup, Bhuvneshwar had been rushed back in for the final Test in Sydney, after nursing a left ankle injury for most part of the tour. He bowled 34 wicketless overs in that Test, his pace dropping so low that Wriddhiman Saha even decided to stand up to the stumps. India will hope lessons in injury management from those episodes have been learnt and ghosts they believe are buried don't raise their heads again as they build towards the 2019 World Cup."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo