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Feature

Bhuvneshwar the banker comes to India's rescue

The game was poised to go either way. There was tension all around. But the fast bowler calmly defused it and took control

Saurabh Somani
21-Mar-2021
England were 127 for 1 in 12 overs, with both Jos Buttler and Dawid Malan having crossed fifty. There was plenty of firepower left in the shed, and an equation of 98 from 48 seemed eminently gettable. India had only one card left to play, and Virat Kohli played it, calling back Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Bhuvneshwar's first spell read 2-0-6-1, but since he had gone out of the attack, India's efforts to stop the runs cascade was like trying to plug multiple leaks with paper towels. But in Bhuvneshwar, India knew they had someone who could come with brick and mortar and cement. Ordinarily, he might have been saved up for the death, but not with England going the way they were.
After a tight - but fair - first-ball wide, three successive slower balls followed, in the channel for the right-handed Buttler and slanting across the left-handed Malan. Not on a driveable length, but not so short that they could pull or cut comfortably - not when they weren't reading the slower one early enough.
Buttler, who plays the reverse sweep as easily as others nurdle off their pads, missed one next ball, which was at normal speed. Even for Buttler, it must be tough to react quickly to changes of pace bowled with the subtle skill of Bhuvneshwar.
By the fifth ball, the effect of India's large total had begun to exert its scoreboard pressure. There was a release shot coming. The batsman knew it, the bowler knew it, the game situation almost demanded it. And Bhuvneshwar nailed the hard length in the channel, with the quickest delivery he had bowled in the over. Even a batsman of Buttler's calibre couldn't properly get underneath the ball, and holed out to long-off.
Three runs, and the wicket of the opposition's most destructive batsman, just when the game seemed it could go in either direction, depending who pushed. And Bhuvneshwar didn't just give it a push, he bulldozed through it. Beginning with that game-breaking over, England mustered 61 for 7 in the last eight. Bhuvneshwar had prised the door open and the other bowlers followed his lead in storming through, helped by the work the batsmen had done in piling on a mountain of runs.
At the end of a match that had 412 runs scored in 40 overs, Bhuvneshwar had 4-0-15-2, and four of those runs had come off wide balls.
ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats captured just how much better he had been than any other bowler in the game. Bhuvneshwar's performance earned him 76.6 Bowling Impact points, nearly double that of the next best, Adil Rashid with 44.45. No other bowler got more than 27.
It capped an typically understated, typically excellent return to top-flight cricket for Bhuvneshwar. Nobody got more than the 183.85 Bowling Impact points he gathered over the series. Jofra Archer was menacingly hostile, Mark Wood bowled as if his slower balls would be 90 mph, Shardul Thakur got the most wickets - but overall, the best bowler was Bhuvneshwar. The four actual wickets he got were worth almost seven Smart Wickets, and while his traditional economy rate was an outstanding 6.39 anyway, his Smart Economy was a frankly jaw-dropping 4.94 - and that against the batting line-up that's held to be the most explosive in T20 cricket today.
Putting context to Bhuvneshwar's performances in this series tells us tangibly that he bowled the tough overs consistently, and that he made breakthroughs that significantly impacted the game.
It's the kind of return Kohli was hoping for. "He's shaping up really well. He's come back, he's fit. He's worked really well to get back to 100% fitness," Kohli had said before the series started. "Look, he's a smart operator with the ball, we've all seen that in the past few years. He continues to bring that experience on the field, which is going to be vital for us going forward. He has a clear understanding of what he wants to do in the next few months, and he wants to contribute towards many more Indian victories in the coming months. And in the World Cup we would obviously need our most experienced T20 bowlers, and he's right up there with anyone else. With the new ball, through the middle overs, and in the death as well. He's a guy that you can bank on."
Banking on Bhuvneshwar is exactly what India did, given the relative greenness of the rest of India's bowling attack. It's what Rohit Sharma gushed about, once the series was done.
"He still remains one of our leading bowlers, and obviously in this particular line-up he is our leading bowler," Sharma said. "We do understand that we need to put the responsibility on him a lot more come the crucial overs, and he has accepted that responsibility pretty well. Bowled the crucial overs at the start, and towards the back end, which we thought was not easy at all considering how much dew was on the field. That is what someone like Bhuvi has done for us. You can count on him, you can rely on him in situations like this."
Banker. Reliable. The guy you can count on.
For the man himself though, he couldn't even bring himself to say "It's good to be back" - quickly holding back his tongue when presented with the Man of the Match award and saying, "No I don't want to say that it's good to be back, because whenever I've said it, twice in the last one year, nothing good after that."
India will gladly take that glass half-empty attitude, and hope to fill it up with a dose of Jasprit Bumrah, come the T20 World Cup. With both Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah fit and firing in the same bowling attack, it'll be like having the banker operating from one end and the safe-cracker with the blowtorch from the other. And it could be fairly irresistible.

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo