Bhuvneshwar Kumar is recognised as one of the best bowlers at the death in limited-overs cricket. Experience, skills, street-smarts and pace - he has all those, but it his mastery of the slower delivery, including the knuckleball that have catapulted him into a select category of fast bowlers that batsmen always fear. Bhuvneshwar was the only player other than David Warner that Sunrisers Hyderabad retained before the IPL auction.
We meet in Hyderabad early in May, a day after Sunrisers' home game against Delhi Daredevils. Bhuvneshwar went wicketless, but given he was struggling with a back niggle, he was happy to come through unscathed.
Would you say this current Sunrisers attack is the most complete T20 bowling unit you've been part of?
It is a very good bowling attack. What is good about this unit is, whenever anybody has been asked to deliver he has done it - Basil Thampi played a couple of matches and he did whatever the captain asked of him or the team needed.
It is an attack that has defended small targets. Like in the away match against Mumbai Indians, where you defended 118. When you defend such a small total, what does the bowler need to focus on?
Everyone knows that when you defend a small target there is not much room to make any mistake. The good thing is, whenever we have defended a low total, we have always taken wickets.
I was not in Mumbai, but when I spoke to the guys who played in that match, they said that everyone wanted to focus on bowling the dot ball at the beginning. The batsmen made mistakes or went after the bowlers as the dot balls increased, and that is how we kept taking wickets at regular intervals. So the bowlers were not going after the wickets, they just wanted to bowl dot balls.
How difficult is it to defend small targets like those?
It is difficult to defend a low total because there is no pressure on the batting side. One or two good overs and they know then they'll only need [about] a run a ball. When you are defending a low total, the key is, all bowlers need to be on the same page: either you go for wickets or you contain the run rate. Either option could work. If you go for wickets, you could contain the run rate, or you could get wickets by containing the run rate.
Is it good to be attacking while defending a small target?
It totally depends on the bowlers, the team. Like, in the Mumbai match, our bowlers were just defensive. They wanted the batsmen to make mistakes, because sometimes batsmen can relax while chasing a low total, since they know one over can change the whole game. But when you keep bowling dot balls, they come under pressure and commit mistakes, and that is what happened in the Mumbai match.
While chasing a big target, batsmen usually try and hit the first ball of the over for a boundary, to put pressure on the bowler. As a strike bowler what is your mantra for the first ball?
For a bowler it doesn't matter whether it is a first ball or a last ball. We always want to take a wicket or bowl a dot ball. Yes, when you get hit on the first ball, you are always under pressure because you still have to bowl five more balls and the batsman has got the upper hand. For a bowler all six balls matter. You might bowl five dot balls and then get hit for a boundary off the last delivery.
Yesterday, against Daredevils, you were taken for 17 runs off the last over of the innings. You rarely leak so many runs at the death.
Exactly. I have not given so many, but whatever bad balls I bowled, the batsmen converted. When you are going through a good patch, even if you bowl bad balls, batsmen might only convert 50% of those deliveries.
You are the only Indian bowler to have a five-for in each of the three international formats. The last time you picked up a five-for was in the T20 series in South Africa. Three of the wickets in that match came off the slower ball. How important is that variation for you?
It is very important, especially in the T20 format, because everyone goes after the bowler straightaway, but when you have a variation, the batsman thinks twice before hitting you. Overseas, most times the ball comes nicely on to the bat and batsmen always want to hit you square of the wicket if they are good at the cut and pull. So if you can take the pace off the delivery, you can contain the strengths of the batsman.
Say about five years ago, what percentage of your deliveries were the slower variation?
I do not remember what percentage, but it depends on the situation, ground conditions, and the batsman. A few batsmen are very good against the slower ball, a few are very good against the yorker, so you don't want to bowl those variations against them. But a slower ball is a necessary variation because when the batsman is in his flow, all he wants is pace on the delivery. So when you bowl the slower ball, it becomes effective.
Is the slower ball reactive?
In the T20 format you have to be proactive instead of reacting to things. Yes, it can be a reaction if you get hit for a boundary or a six, then you can bowl a slower one, depending on the conditions. But even if you go for runs, it is better to be proactive.
How many types of slower ball do you have?
Offcutter, legcutter and knuckleball.
And you bowl them all with same grip?
The grip remains mostly the same - just a slight change for the knuckleball. I bowl the cutters with the upright seam; the only difference is how you roll the fingers. It is not a mystery. The batsmen can see whether it is a legspin or offspin.
When it comes to the knuckleball what is different about the grip?
I just try to hold the ball by the tips of my fingers. A few bowlers grip it with the knuckles, but I am not comfortable doing that. The seam is always upright and not scrambled. That is how I started, learned, and have practised since then.
Do you remember how it was the first few times the knuckleball left your hand?
I was not comfortable because you are used to holding the ball with both fingers [and thumb] with a good grip, whereas when you are bowling the knuckleball you are gripping with the fingertips. It would slip. In fact, I remember, the first few times I tried the knuckleball, it would pitch near my legs or lob over to the wicketkeeper. It took nearly a week to start pitching it properly.
I think it was two years ago when I tried it for the first time on the big stage. It was during the IPL.
How do you practise it in the nets?
I do not bowl too many knuckleballs in the nets. I usually bowl that delivery against a single stump in the centre - that is how I get more ideas about the delivery.
Former South Africa fast bowler Charl Langveldt was amazed at how easily and how soon you learned to master the knuckleball. He himself took several years.
I think he was the first guy I noticed bowling the knuckleball. He used it bowl it very well. Unfortunately no one picked it up till Zaheer Khan tried it, and now many bowlers use the knuckleball.
Langveldt also thinks your knuckleball almost floats.
I don't know about that, but the good thing is it goes with the seam and swings.
How is the delivery different for you from how others bowl it?
It is difficult to read it because there is no change in my action, no change in my wrist position.
The knuckleball is a wicket-taking ball. When you bowl offcutters and legcutters, batsmen can pick them from the wrist, but the knuckleball they have not been able to read. They might pick it in the air or after pitching. That is why a knuckleball is very effective, because it looks like the ball is coming at the same [good] pace, and the batsman gets beaten. So they cannot see anything different in my loading, in my run-up. Only once I release it, they notice the change.
In terms of putting doubt in a batsman's mind, the bowler has to think. It's not possible to teach that, is it?
You cannot teach that. That is what experience teaches you. You have been in those situations many times before, so you know the possible outcomes if you try something. Also, it is about doing the process right and not thinking what is going to happen. If you do that, then sometimes your body can get tense and you will not be able to deliver
A slower ball of any kind basically is deception. How did you teach yourself that?
Anything that a batsman cannot pick from the wrist is deception. Almost every bowler bowls a slower ball, but not many can be deceptive. A slower ball can only be deceptive if it is different, if it is floating, swinging. If you look at [Dwayne] Bravo's slower ball, it is deceptive because it floats and dips.
Ben Laughlin floats his knuckleball and it swings. If you ask me whether I can bowl the way these guys deliver, I cannot, because their actions are different. I might want to bowl the slower ball like Bravo but I can't.
Does the pitch matter?
Of course, it does. If you bowl a slower ball and the pitch is slow, then it will be difficult for the batsman to hit. If it is a flat wicket and nothing is happening, it is easier for the batsman to pick to the slower ball.
Any particularly memorable wickets that you've taken with the knuckleball?
Upul Tharanga in Sri Lanka. It was a normal outswinger and Tharanga attempted to flick and was beaten by the pace.
What do you need in order to be brave as a fast bowler in T20 cricket?
You need wickets to be brave. When you get wickets, you can try anything. But when you don't, you always hesitate to try a few things because it is not always about giving runs and getting wickets.
Azhar Mahmood, the current Pakistan bowling coach, said bowlers win you tournaments. Do you agree?
I agree. You see teams buy a lot of batsmen for a lot of money because they are good batsmen. But you also need good bowlers to get them out or contain the runs. If you bowl first and you can get the opposition out for 130-140 then it is a good total to chase. If your team has made 160, a par score in T20, you can help win the match. In T20 cricket, bowlers win you matches.