After rising rapidly to indispensable status with the Indian team, Bhuvneshwar Kumar has had a bit of a slowdown due to external factors. Injuries have struck him ahead of major tours recently, and bookending this phase are meagre returns in the slog overs of IPL matches. But the seamer, who was India's top wicket-taker in the Champions Trophy in 2017, told ESPNcricinfo that the numbers don't always tell the story, and that he is close to peak fitness. And, more importantly, the rhythm that has been so hard to find during a start-stop 12 months before the World Cup is coming back too.
You had a lot of downs in the past year. Having missed most of the action in England in 2018, how does it feel to finally be going back there?
I wouldn't say it was down. It was up and down. Basically down because of the injuries.
Your career has been stop-start over the last year. How has the board handled that and how have you handled it, personally?
I would say thanks to BCCI and NCA (National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru). They weren't rushing to send me back to the ground. They knew if I go back and get injured, it will be a longer period [of recovery]. So after England (2018 tour), I came back to the Asia Cup. I was pretty fit there, but since that [lower back] injury, I've been really taking care in terms of training and rehab. I'm not taking it for granted because I know if I get injured again, it'll be a personal loss and also from the team's perspective because of the set-up there right now.
Regarding your fitness, there will be at least nine matches at the World Cup plus at least seven more here in the IPL. Is that something you've thought of?
Not at the moment. But of course, it's only the halfway stage of the IPL. If we go to the last phase of the tournament, we'll see how the body goes. If everything goes well, there's nothing to be worried about. If there's a niggle or something like that, we can talk to the [Sunrisers] management. The franchise has been really kind to me and other players as well. They keep asking how we're feeling because they know the World Cup is important for us as well.
The good thing is that when you talk to others or give them advice, there are things you also learn
You have been that captain for a while at Sunrisers, while Kane Williamson was out with an injury. How has that been?
It's been good. The good thing is that when you talk to others or give them advice, there are things you also learn. Sometimes you say something to a bowler and it strikes that this thing can work for you as well. In that way, it's been good. Otherwise, there's a good coach and mentor. They're helping everyone out.
Is there anything about captaincy that you didn't expect?
Not really different, but it's been good for me in terms of experience and maturity. When you are in those shoes, you know how things work. When I go back to the Indian cricket team, I can look back at it that way that things are not easy for a captain or a coach. I'll try to make things easy for them. Not ask too many questions. I can feel that.
Have you ever wondered about your decisions after a game?
Yes, of course. Not just as a captain, as a player as well. Especially when you've lost the match. You think you could have changed something, you shouldn't have done something; these thoughts come and it helps you not make the same mistakes in the other matches.
How has it been to manage those thoughts, both as a senior player and as captain?
It's all about responsibility, not just as a captain but also a senior bowler. There's a responsibility to make them feel comfortable. But if you look at bowlers like Sandeep [Sharma], Siddarth [Kaul], they're also senior bowlers. If you look at Sandeep, he's been in the IPL for many years. Siddarth did really well for us for two years. So there's not many changes, but of course if you talk to them, you learn one or two things from them.
You're known to be really good at the death. It was one of the reasons why your limited-overs fame came about, when you started maturing as a fast bowler. But you have slipped a little bit over the last year. Why do you think that has happened?
Look, the first thing is that IPL is a big tournament. You cannot bowl well in all 14 matches, there are a few matches where you will go for runs. But if you look at the last two-three matches, I'm happy the way I've bowled. Whatever I wanted to execute, it is happening. So it's not a concern for me right now. There were a few matches where I couldn't bowl the way I wanted to, but it's a part of the game.
When you're not in the rhythm, or when you're coming back after a break, you want to bowl more
An economy of 13.4 and eight wickets in death overs say you've probably not done well since the last season. Which is shocking to many, because how does that just happen? Have the batsmen picked you better? Have injuries played a role?
See, it's everything. The batsmen could be picking me well. They know what my plan is. But if you look at the last four years of the IPL, I've done really well. If you've done well for so many years, there'll be a few bad years as well. But economy of 13 or taking wickets, it's not really a concern. Sometimes there's a match of 200 and you get hit for a few runs. Stats are something which can't define everything. It could be hiding more things than it shows. But, of course, I haven't been as good as what I was two years back. Last year, I wouldn't count because I was injured. But this year, the first two matches I wasn't really good. It could be anything, they're picking me well, I'm not executing well, or I'm not in the rhythm. But last two matches it's been really good for me.
Does it change how you train over the next few days if you get hit in a game?
It doesn't change the training, but I bowl more. Because I know when you're not in the rhythm, or when you're coming back after a break, you want to bowl more. You don't want to be dependent on the matches, saying after five matches I'll be in rhythm. It depends if you feel that you want to bowl more. Sometimes what happens is you're not getting wickets, you're going for runs, you just want to get away. So sometimes you don't practice at all. It depends.
Do you think it depends on who is bowling with you? There's a theory that when Jasprit Bumrah bowls with you, they play him out and attack you.
Could be. I'm not sure, but it can happen sometimes. They want to defend against a particular bowler, they want to target a particular bowler. But in the end, if they want to target me and I'm not able to execute, they'll easily hit me. But, of course, if they want to target me and I execute properly, I can get the wicket as well. It's not an excuse but it's about execution.
Is it easier to bowl yorkers in ODIs because the ball is older?
No, it's almost the same, whether it's T20 or ODIs. But when there's dew, you're not able to grip the ball, then it's difficult.
Do you think batsmen pick the knuckle ball better these days?
Yes, they know a few bowlers bowl the knuckle balls, so they figure out ways to pick it.
England is a place where the ball swings, but if you look at the last few tournaments, the ball didn't really swing. It was more of flat wickets
Tom Moody said you're someone who needs a lot of games to get into your flow. Do you agree with that?
Of course. Not (just) me, but anyone. When you're not playing games and you come back to playing a competition like this, you need a few games to get back to the rhythm. I'm no different than anyone. If you get more games, you're in the rhythm, that gives you confidence.
Was it difficult at the start of the season with the lack of match fitness?
I wouldn't say match fitness, but I'd say rhythm. The first match didn't go well, then you can feel that rhythm is something I can improve. And that comes back after playing two-three matches. If you look at the last two matches, I'm almost up there with my rhythm.
Match fitness-wise have you hit your peak?
Last two-three matches it's been really good for me. I wouldn't say peak, but close, the way I bowled in the last match. It's not about taking wickets, but how you're feeling when it comes to rhythm and execution.
Would you be keen to rest yourself to manage workload? Or would you rather be playing?
Of course, at this point, if everything goes well with the body, I won't take rest. If there's a niggle, I have to. It's not just because of the World Cup but it's general. If I feel good, I won't be taking any rest.
Do you enjoy playing in England?
Of course. England is a place where the ball swings, but if you look at the last few tournaments, the ball didn't really swing. It was more of flat wickets. It's going to be a challenge for us a bowling unit. They're batting-friendly conditions, but we are up for the challenge.
Is there anything different you do when you go there?
In India, the wicket tends to get a bit slower once the ball gets old, but in England it's pretty much the same whether it's new ball or old ball. So there's a few variations which we can bring in or strategise when it comes to the last 10-15 overs. If the ball is swinging, we can afford to bowl up, if not, of course you have to pull it back. Everything depends on how the condition will be there.
Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo