Bhuvneshwar Kumar is so soft-spoken and mild-mannered, one might not be able to guess easily that he leads a potent pace attack. If he was not a cricketer, he could be easily mistaken for a bank accountant, asking politely if you were maintaining the minimum balance in your account. Could he make for a bouncer at a pub? Probably not. An argumentative lawyer? Maybe not. The leader of a pace attack? Let's see
Pace-bowling is no longer about simply speed or swing or bouncers. The evolution of the game has pushed bowlers to add new dexterities over time, and Bhuvneshwar is a prime example of such progress.
When he started out, he was seen primarily as a swing bowler and needed assistance from conditions. In under five years since his international debut in 2012, Bhuvneshwar has worked diligently to add several skills apart from pace and develop into a bowler with a variety of arrows in his quiver.
Old ball and death-overs specialist
As leader of the Sunrisers Hyderabad attack in the last few years in the IPL, Bhuvneshwar had the added responsibility of bowling in the death overs, and he now carries out the same task with Jasprit Bumrah for India. A specific training programme and an increased emphasis on fitness have helped him add pace and aided his end-overs bowling.
"Our trainer Mr. [Shankar] Basu introduced me to a different type of training that eventually helped me increase my pace," Bhuvneshwar said last month. "That, in turn, went on to help me bowl at the death too."
India batsman Shikhar Dhawan was all praise for his India and Sunrisers team-mate, after the bowler's 3 for 45 limited New Zealand to 230 in the second ODI in Pune.
"When it comes to the death overs, he is the best bowler; the best bowler I guess in the world, the way he bowls yorkers," Dhawan said on Wednesday night. "I have seen him in the IPL and in the Indian team, he has been doing it consistently well. He has improved a lot. And I feel that he has got a lot of belief in himself and that's just showing out there."
While spinners have developed variations like the doosra and carom ball, the quick bowlers have the knuckle ball. Zaheer Khan used it in the 2011 World Cup and Australia's Andrew Tye exhibited it on numerous occasions in IPL 2017. On Wednesday, Bhuvneshwar utilised it against New Zealand's left-handed opener, Colin Munro
With Munro looking to play aggressively, Bhuvneshwar decided to change his strategy in his fourth over and came round the wicket. He started with a bouncer, Munro ducked. Bhuvneshwar followed it with another short ball and Munro mistimed the hook. After a good-length delivery outside off, Bhuvneshwar returned to bowling over the wicket for the last ball of the over, and slipped the knuckle ball.
With the help of the loosened grip, the slower ball at 118kmh pitched on middle stump and shaped in only slightly to beat Munro's push down the ground and deflected off the bat and pad to knock the top of middle stump. The change of pace, change of angle twice in the over and a hint of swing undid the batsman.
"The only thing I tried to change [in this match] was to Munro because in the last match he went after us," Bhuvneshwar told bcci.tv after the match. "So, I had a plan for him; I tried to bowl knuckle balls and bowl bouncers to him.
"I developed it [knuckle ball] just before the IPL, during the Test matches, keeping in mind that the ball in India doesn't swing much and you have two fielders catching. So, keeping that in mind I tried to develop it, knowing it will be handy in T20 and one-dayers. I'm glad I added one of the variations."
Dhawan felt the knuckle ball to Munro was evidence of Bhuvneshwar's control.
"I feel his control over the bowling is very good," Dhawan said. "Not just at the start but he's got a lot of variations, and even when he bowls the slower ball and knuckle ball, he makes sure that he's pitching it on the right area. The way he got that left-hander [Munro] out, it was because he pitched that ball in the right area."
In a television interview during the innings break, Bhuvneshwar explained how he gripped the ball differently while bowling the delivery that dismissed Munro.
"When I load up, I just try to do this way (bending the knuckles of the first two fingers to hold the seam with the fingertips on top and the thumb gripping the ball from below) so it comes out from the fingertips and doesn't go at the normal pace."
Last month, Bhuvneshwar used the same tactic to dismiss two top-order Sri Lanka batsmen in the last ODI of the series. Niroshan Dickwella handed a return catch to Bhuvneshwar by mistiming a flick and Dilshan Munaweera miscued another knuckle ball by not getting the kind of power he wanted. Bhuvneshwar then went on to take three more wickets to complete his maiden ODI five-for.
Targeting left-hand batsmen
Bhuvneshwar's ability to swing the ball both ways helps him against right- and left-handed batsmen. He ranks fourth among the top wicket-taking fast bowlers against left-handers this year, and even has a better average against them when compared to his own record against right-handers in 2017. Despite bowling an extra 104 deliveries to right-handers, his 24 wickets this year are split equally and he averages much better against left-handers (28) than right-handers (33.66).
Such confidence gives his captain the option of bringing Bhuvneshwar into the attack even in the middle overs, when a left-hander may be collecting runs more easily against bowlers like Yuzvendra Chahal or Axar Patel, who turn the ball into them. In Pune, for instance, Colin de Grandhomme and the left-hander Henry Nicholls were putting up a counter-attacking stand by targeting those two spinners. When the reintroduction of Kedar Jadhav and Bumrah failed, Virat Kohli gave the ball to Bhuvneshwar for the 38th over, with the two batsmen having scored 44 runs in eight overs. The breakthrough took five balls: once Nicholls was back on strike, Bhuvneshwar went round the wicket and angled the old ball sharply into him to knock over the top of leg stump.
This expertise and deftness isn't just about utility. It makes Bhuvneshwar a very skillful bowler. If you ask his Sunrisers team-mate Ben Laughlin, the "most skillful bowler in the world!!!"
Bhuvi is the most skilful bowler in the world!!!
— Ben Laughlin (@Benlaughlin55) October 25, 2017