"Khilake toh dekho (Give me a chance and then see)," Praveen Kumar had said around two years ago when asked about the perception that he is just an ODI bowler. He asked to explain that perception, and the explanation was given: That he doesn't have pace, that he can't be effective with the old ball, and that he can be restrictive but not wicket-taking. The eyebrows rose, a frown dented his face as he said "Khilake toh dekho. I bowl so many overs in the Ranji Trophy and don't I take wickets?" Not many were convinced. Even Jaidev Unadkat, without any experience in first-class cricket, played a Test ahead of him. It must have left him gutted.
All he offered today on the issue after a fine spell in the afternoon to go through the West Indies middle order was: "My job is just to bowl well." Praveen doesn't smile on a cricket ground. He swings the ball often, stares at the batsmen sometimes and lingers on in the middle of the pitch at times with hands on his hips. He looks as if he is angry with the world. Beyond the boundary, though, he smiles if he knows you. "Hasao mat (Don't make me laugh)," he says as he walks into the press meet today.
"It felt good. The ball was swinging both ways. I didn't feel like I was playing my first Test. There were no nerves. I just went according to the plan. I just wanted to concentrate on line and length and for me the ball should swing." It did today. Ask Adrian Barath. The ball curved towards the line of the stumps and then jagged away and took the edge of a batsman who was past his fifty.
All that ODI experience wouldn't have hurt and Praveen was in rhythm today. If "shape" is the mantra for Raina, "rhythm" is the magic word for Praveen. "Sometimes it comes in two overs; sometimes it takes four," Praveen said. "Here, since it's hot, you have to build that rhythm quickly."
Darren Bravo was his next. Again, the ball moved away fractionally to clip the outside edge, before he had Brendan Nash, caught off a leading edge in the slips. Praveen was flowing and a five-for on debut looked within his reach, but he was prevented from bowling further in the innings as he ran on to the danger area thrice. "I was just focussing on what I am bowling and didn't focus on running on pitch and stuff. This is the first time it's happened in my career. It's good that I learned it in my first innings itself."
Some might yet not be convinced that he is a Test bowler. What'll happen if the conditions don't suit him? What if he doesn't get the ball to move? Only time will tell. More empirical evidence is needed, of course. He has managed to move the ball in domestic cricket in Indian conditions, though. Many felt he had to lift his pace. "He has to increase his pace a bit and not lose his swing obviously," former India allrounder Manoj Prabhakar, who called him a 'jadugar' (magician), had told ESPNcricinfo more than two years ago. "Then he can trouble international batsmen consistently. I faced such a problem in my early days. I am not talking about express pace or sacrificing it for swing but a little more - that combination of pace and swing hurts the batsman."
It's something many others have told him. During the IPL in South Africa, Kevin Pietersen, Praveen's captain then, urged him to build some muscle and crank up some pace. "Just five to 10 kmph more. No one can touch you." It's an eminently sensible piece of advice, but India has seen one swing bowler in Irfan Pathan falter due to an obsession with pace. Maybe Praveen is wary of going down that route. He just quietly nodded at Pietersen that day, with a smile.
Today, he left the press conference with a smile. What will be a good score for India? "Utna mere ko idea nahi hai. Hoga jitna bi hoga (I have no idea, whatever will happen will happen)." For a man who doesn't smile much on the field, he always brings a smile on your face beyond it.