On the surface, there is nothing Hellenic about Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the 25-year-old swing bowler from Meerut who has become one of the Indian team’s most reliable members. There is, however, a classic, timeless beauty to the manner in which Bhuvneshwar approaches hurling a ball across 22 yards. Crouching at the top of his mark, Bhuvneshwar, slight of build and not overly tall or short, gathers himself with precise strides that grow steadily longer as he builds pace to arrive at the return crease with a lithely arched back. This is all controlled, all choreographed, and has been perfected over years of hard toil. But, the position of his wrist as the ball is released? That is God given. Better bowlers have spent an entire lifetime trying to replicate this, only to fail miserably. It is in that wrist, at once supple and strong, that Bhuvneshwar’s craft lies. A quick snap this way, and a ball that is gun-barrel straight tails away at the last moment, kissing the outside edge of the broadest blade presented. A whip the other way, and instead of leaving the batsman, the ball traces a sharp curve inward, hooping in past the bat to crash into pad and send out a chorus of appeals.
To understand Bhuvneshwar’s art, it is worth tracing his career back to where it all began, for no man can escape his history and geography. Uttar Pradesh might now seem like an assembly line for cricketers, but that wasn’t always the case. Today, the sports hostel system of the northern hinterland has thrown up the likes of Mohammad Kaif, RP Singh, Praveen Kumar, Suresh Raina, Sudeep Tyagi and, most recently, Bhuvi, as he is known to his friends. But, it was not long ago that the state was barely known for its cricket.
Meerut, where Bhuvneshwar is from, is close enough to Delhi to be affected by its politics, but just far enough away to beat to its own rhythm. For the longest time, there was little Meerut was known for beyond its unusually high lawlessness, gun culture and violent cricket. There was, of course, revdi, that sticky sesame seed and sugary winter sweet. There was the most well-known cricket goods manufacturing company, SG, whose cricket balls now travel the world, bringing renown to Meerut. There was Vishal Bhardwaj, India’s most edgy modern filmmaker, whose adaptations of Shakespeare stay so true to his Uttar Pradesh roots it’s scarcely believable. But, more than any of this, there was Meerut ki kainchi, immortalised by the great Saadat Hasan Manto, in his book about a Bollywood starlet he would not refer to by name. The scissors of Meerut are so fabled, the industry has protected the term, so its name is not ruined by lesser imitations from outside the region. It’s easy to think of Bhuvi as cricket’s version of Meerut ki kainchi, a piece of raw metal from Uttar Pradesh that was smelted, shaped and sharpened into becoming a bowler who would trouble batsmen in fields as far flung as Nottingham and Port of Spain.
When a young Bhuvi told his parents he wanted to play cricket, there was barely enough money at home to pay for a pair of bowling spikes. But, by the time he rose through the age-group ranks, his canny swing bowling and doughty batting winning admirers, he caught the eye of Ashish Winston Zaidi, then coach of the Uttar Pradesh Ranji Trophy side. Zaidi, a swing bowler of some standing in domestic cricket himself, realised that he had a real talent on his hands.
Never the quickest, Bhuvneshwar hits about 135kph when his rhythm is just right. Even this pace, coupled with consistent swing, was enough to do the trick in the Ranji Trophy, especially when there was a bit of spice in the wicket. Steady performances there, backed up by streaks in which he harvested wickets by the bagful, ensured that he was handed his India cap at the age of 22. Replacing Praveen Kumar (who was cut from almost exactly the same cloth as Bhuvi, but was as temperamental as a rodeo bull with a spike in its hoof), he provided stability and variation to the Indian attack.
In limited-overs cricket, with two white balls being used, swing was a major tool, and if anyone could get the ball to bend in the air, it was Bhuvneshwar. At home and away, MS Dhoni would use him as a bowler who stacked up the overs at the top, allowing the captain the option of saving his quicker bowlers for the unenviable task of bowling at the death. Bhuvneshwar’s knack of winkling out wickets at the top – he now has close to 100 sticks in all forms of international cricket – meant that it was not long before he was pressed into service in Test cricket. While he played a defensive role at home, it was on the pitiful tour of England in 2014, where India lost 3-1, that he really came into his own. While others around him struggled to keep going after an unlikely win at Lord’s, he was at the peak of his skills. With 19 wickets in the series, he was comfortably the best of the Indian bowlers on offer. And, while others were nervous, fidgety and plain twitchy at the crease, Bhuvi was a picture of calm in the lower order. His 247 runs were bettered only by two top-order batsmen.
A soft-spoken man with droopy lashes, soulful eyes and a face so symmetrical that model coordinators chased him as much as cricket coaches, Bhuvneshwar shyly opened up about his methods to the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s website. “If you think like a batsman, you have an upper-hand over the man you’re bowling to. All the runs that I have scored here have played a huge role in the way I have bowled. Having batted there for long hours, I know where the batsman will find it difficult to play the ball,” he explained. “I can anticipate what is going on in the batsman’s mind and plan the next ball accordingly. The runs also give you confidence, which gets transformed into courage of conviction when you come on to bowl.” He was particularly pleased with how he bowled at Lord’s, where he took 6 for 82 in the first innings, becoming the third bowler from UP, after RP Singh (in 2007) and Praveen Kumar (in 2011), to get his name up on the honours board.
While it was Praveen who had provided the background to Bhuvneshwar when he embarked on the tour of England, it was how he was handled by his captain that gave him the confidence to dismiss the best in the world. “MS has always been a bowler’s captain. Even in my debut match, he told me, ‘Set your own fields and make your own plans. If I feel the need to change anything, I will tell you.’ Since then, it has worked that way, and he is very open to suggestions if I want something different from what he does,” said Bhuvneshwar. “You have to bowl a tight line and length, and, at times, MS also stands up [to the wickets] to me. That’s for when the batsman is trying to get forward to cut the swing. If the keeper is standing up, in the fear of getting stumped, the batsman will not try to walk down the wicket to negate the swing. We have figured out when to use that ploy and against which batsmen.”
Like all international cricketers, Bhuvneshwar has found that injuries strike just when the going seems to be good. Persistent ankle problems have meant that he has had to return to the drawing board of first-class cricket more than once, slowly working his way back into the international scene. During his most recent spell out of the side, he watched India crash and burn in Australia, and was pressed into service in the final Test of the series, in Sydney. The first look at him was frightening. He was down on pace, there was no swing on offer and batsmen waded into him with barely disguised glee. But, as he got overs under his belt, it became clear just why India was so keen to get him back in the mix. With the World Cup at hand, and none of the express quicks showing any signs of consistency, Bhuvi will have a serious role to play.
In the past year, Bhuvneshwar has won an A Grade Contract, the highest possible, from the BCCI, was crowned its player of the year and also took home the People’s Choice Award at the International Cricket Council’s annual function. Life’s good at the moment, and it will only get better when he returns to full fitness and is back to bending the ball through the air in that familiar fashion. India need Bhuvi, and he knows this only too well.
Anand Vasu is managing editor of Wisden India
Location courtesy: Lemontree Premier Hotel