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In India's season of discoveries, comeback man Bhuvneshwar Kumar hits the sweetest spot

The struggle with the body will be an ongoing one, but there remains no doubt about his ability

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
The No. 1 slot for the swing bowler who also bowls at the death belongs to Bhuvneshwar Kumar.  •  BCCI

The No. 1 slot for the swing bowler who also bowls at the death belongs to Bhuvneshwar Kumar.  •  BCCI

When India began this international season on the back of a gruelling IPL, nobody knew what to expect. It's fair to say the actual cricket was not topmost on most minds: they were in Australia, we didn't know how they were coping with quarantines and bubbles, we didn't know to what standard they would be able to play. Naïve as it might be to overstate what they have gone through - their compatriots outside the bubbles have been through much worse - but in playing the cricket they have, winning five out of six series when they were outright favourites for only one of them, has kept a country entertained and engrossed in bleak times.
Along the way, India have discovered the amazing depth in their cricket, forced as they were to cast the net wide because of Covid-19 complications. Rishabh Pant has shown the conservatives that his shot selection was not the problem, as he turned India's fortunes around from the moment he played that cameo in Melbourne. Mohammed Siraj, Shubman Gill and Axar Patel demonstrated the riches in Test cricket. A whole host of other debutants - Shardul Thakur (not a debutant but his first Test was only about an over long), T Natarajan, Washington Sundar, Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav, Krunal Pandya - have made immediate impact.
Amid all these discoveries, though, just as sweet was the return of a grizzled veteran. When India were struggling in the ODIs in Australia, the only series they have lost this season, India's problems looked massive. The world had caught up with their wristspinners, and their new-ball bowlers were not taking wickets. From the start of the year 2019 to the loss of the series in Australia, only Scotland and Bangladesh had a worse bowling average than India's 51.52 inside the first ten overs. India had played more ODI cricket over this period than any other side.
However, when Bhuvneshwar Kumar played, that average came down to 33.73. The problem was, Kumar played only 19 of the 36 matches because of injuries. And in the 17 matches that he didn't play, India picked up just eight powerplay wickets.
Kumar was not getting any younger. When a fast bowler gets into the fourth decade of his life, recurring and multiple injuries can be severely debilitating. Right from early 2018, he has been struggling with one injury after another. His workload was supposed to have been monitored during IPL 2018, but the Sunrisers Hyderabad say they didn't receive any such instructions. Pushed back too soon in the ODI series decider, he injured his lower back - not for the first time - and lost out on the Test series in England. In the World Cup next year, he did his left hamstring, followed by sports hernia, and then the thigh injury during last year's IPL.
There was trepidation around how good and how fit the returning Kumar would be. Even he was cautious in his expectations, just wanting some reassurance from his body that could only come from eight intense international matches without any serious discomfort or injury.
The struggle with the body will be an ongoing one for the rest of his career, but there remains no doubt about the bowler. In his absence, Deepak Chahar has done a stupendous job in T20Is, but in these eight matches, Kumar has shown the No. 1 slot for the swing bowler who also bowls at the death belongs to him.
In an ODI series in which 350 didn't seem enough a lot of the time, Kumar went at just 4.65 an over. By the third match, he was back to picking new-ball wickets too. In the T20Is, too, he went at just 6.38 an over. In what might be reminiscent of his 4-0-23-0 during Chris Gayle's 175 in the IPL, he was 2-0-6-1 amid the carnage of 127 for 1 in 12 overs in the final T20I and 4-0-13-0 in 131 for 0 in 14 overs in the first ODI. In the five T20Is, there was a boundary hit every 5.7 deliveries. Kumar conceded one every 8.3 balls. When a boundary was being hit every 7.5 balls in the ODIs, he went for one every 10.2 balls.
These are superlative numbers, worthy of a Player of the Series in both the competitions, as Virat Kohli rightly pointed out after the ODI series. He scored truckloads in one of the series and looked good to do so in the other. He knows how difficult it is to bowl in these limited-overs matches. He knows where the difference was made.
According to ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, Kumar was the most impactful bowler in the T20I series, pipping Jofra Archer. In overall impact per match, he was behind only Archer, Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav.
In an era that you need extreme pace or a different angle or hyperextension of the arm to be successful for more than one season in limited-overs cricket, Kumar's success has endured without any of these attributes. What he has is the ability to extract every ounce of movement available, the accuracy and the absolute control over what he wants to bowl. He keeps upgrading his slower-balls repertoire to make sure he doesn't become predictable at the death. He managed to get Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow only in the final ODI, but you could see he bowled for that dismissal in the first two matches too. His awareness of what plan is needed and its execution is spot on most of the time.
India will welcome the reunion of Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in their limited-overs international sides. In a season of debutants, when it might have been easy to forget Kumar, he has told the sunset and the horse to wait for another time.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo