Bhuvneshwar will be back, says India bowling coach
Just over a year ago, Bhuvneshwar Kumar looked like a certainty in India's Test XI. On a tour of England where he had looked India's best cricketer, he had picked up 19 wickets at an average of 26.63 while impressing with the bat as well, scoring three half-centuries including one that contributed to a win at Lord's.
Since that tour, though, he has only played one Test match. He hasn't looked the same bowler since his return from an ankle injury, and experts have wondered if he has lost some of his sting while searching for the balance between striving for extra pace and safeguarding his natural ability to swing the ball.
In Sri Lanka, where India wanted to play a medium-pace-bowling allrounder in conditions that suited seam and swing, they called up Stuart Binny from outside their original squad rather than play Bhuvneshwar, who was in it. In the Bangalore Test against South Africa, which began on Saturday, they selected Binny over Bhuvneshwar again, when they wanted a seam-bowling allrounder in place of a spinner.
One reason for this, of course, is that Binny is viewed as a batting allrounder and Bhuvneshwar as a bowling allrounder, but Bhuvneshwar's lack of form must surely be another. And so, twice in two Test matches, Bhuvneshwar has been released from the India squad to play for Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy.
But B Arun, India's bowling coach, is not worried about Bhuvneshwar's seemingly stalled progress. In the first place, he does not think Bhuvneshwar would necessarily have to sacrifice swing to bowl quicker.
"Pertaining to Bhuvneshwar, there are people who bowl 140+ [kmph] and still swing the ball," Arun said, after rain washed out the second day's play. "Bhuvi's USP was swing. He has now definitely put more yards in his pace. But it's only matter of time [before he returns]. It's not like he's not swinging the ball. He needs to be consistent. With work, he will definitely come back."
In the first Test in Mohali, India's two fast bowlers - Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav - only sent down 20 overs between them across the two innings, in conditions where the spinners did the bulk of the work. With Ishant Sharma, India's most experienced fast bowler, coming back into the team for Bangalore, Umesh missed out on selection. Both Aaron and Umesh have had stop-start careers so far, with neither getting too many opportunities to play three or even two Tests in a row.
With India playing most of their Tests at home over the next year or so, this situation is likely to continue for a while. How does a bowling coach help these bowlers through such a situation?
"It's a challenge for the team management as a whole," Arun said. "We have to look at the conditions which would suit the combination that we have. Not often that it would give them a great run. But if not I guess the bottom line is to keep them motivated and make them feel that they have a major role to play when the opportunity arises."
Pressed further about Umesh and Aaron, and the difficulties of getting sporadic chances and only bowling short spells when those chances arrive, Arun said it was part of the struggle of being a fast bowler in Indian conditions.
"If you look at Varun and Umesh, I thought they bowled pretty well in the previous match. Though they were not among the wicket-takers, I thought they bowled exceptionally well. They went under 2.5 runs per over. Also, Varun and Umesh bowled a three-over spell where they were reversing the ball. Then, I thought the spinners had a major role to play. It was unfortunate [that they could not play a bigger role] but you have to fight your way up."
Arun hailed the reliability of Ravindra Jadeja, who has made a successful comeback after spending time out of the Indian side in all three formats, calling him one of India's "banker bowlers".
"I guess he had some time to reflect [on what was going wrong] when he was out of the team," Arun said. "He had time to think about where to improve. His performance in the Ranji Trophy should have given him loads of confidence. Moreover, Jadaja is one of your banker bowlers no matter what - whether Test or one-dayers. He's using that strength to his advantage now."
Despite the second day being washed out entirely, Arun felt India still had the time to build on their strong position (80 for no loss in response to South Africa's 214) and push for a win.
"I guess there is a long way to go in this Test match. What we would like to focus on is - take it session by session in our batting and look to put up a very good score and then take it forward from there. We would look to put up a very good total to be in the driver's seat."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo