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What happened to Bhuvneshwar Kumar, once India’s first-choice quick?

Bhuvneshwar Kumar
by Aadya Sharma 4 minute read

Bhuvneshwar Kumar last played a Test back in 2018, where he was named the Player of the Match. Since then, it’s been a frustrating battle with injuries for India’s one-time spearhead.

In the absence of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, the discussions surrounding India’s current pace options have reached fever pitch, especially with a historic win in Melbourne in the bag, and two Tests still to play. While India sort out its current conundrum, it’s difficult to not think about the ones who missed out to injury – Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Ishant was the more obvious candidate but the series could have been Bhuvneshwar’s comeback ticket. Yet, for the umpteenth time, injury came in his way.

Not too long ago, Bhuvneshwar was an important cog in India’s developing pace unit. He had burst onto the scene with appreciable swing in his kitty, including a lethal inswinger that cut into batsmen both off the pitch and through the air. Within months of his fantastic white-ball entry, he was earmarked to be a Test superstar, particularly one who would relish swinging conditions.

Yet, in the eight years since his India debut, his Test journey has ended up being a mixed bag, primarily due to his regular run-ins with injuries. An ankle injury in 2015 was the first blow, restricting him to just one Test that year. It was a sign of things to come: since then, he has played just eight more Tests.

The time away gave Bhuvneshwar the chance to enhance his bowling attributes, where he decided to not solely rely on his swing, but to also increase the pace by a few notches. Post his return, he looked a more versatile white-ball bowler, adding cutters and knuckle ball to his arsenal on flatter pitches. Speaking to Wisden.com in 2018, he revealed how he had reached the “peak of his physical attributes.”

“I’ve always been able to swing it both ways,” said Kumar. “But I always wanted to add that pace. And I didn’t know how to. I worked with the trainers and the physios and what I’ve learnt is that it comes naturally with age and maturity. The pace I have now (is because) I am at the peak of my physical attributes right now. Everything comes from that physical maturity, it improved the pace a bit.”

The tour to South Africa in 2018 gave Bhuvneshwar a chance to take his Test career to the next level. He looked in great nick throughout, despite being dropped for the second Test, and picked up ten wickets from the other two games. Even as Jasprit Bumrah earned plaudits on his debut tour, Bhuvneshwar looked particularly threatening in patches. His dismissal of AB de Villiers in the Johannesburg Test still rings across social media: the lateral deviation in the air reminded many of the Bhuvneshwar that first burst onto the scene. He was named the Player of the Match, and the stars were aligning for a bumper tour of England later that year.

In England, Bhuvneshwar’s stiff back aggravated into a full-blown injury, and ruled him out of the five Tests. It could have been the series that defined his career – he was supposed to be India’s talisman in swinging conditions. India’s leading wicket-taker on the 2014 tour, he limped out of the series without playing a single Test.

After that, he made a gradual entry into the white-ball sides, and showed flashes of brilliance along the way. However, by then, India’s Test attack had acquired a better shape: Bumrah was at the helm, fuelled by Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami’s renaissance. Among all Indian bowlers with at least ten wickets since his debut, Bhuvneshwar has the second-best Test bowling average (26.09) after Jasprit Bumrah.

Things compounded further when he had yet another injury run-in during the 2019 World Cup when a pulled hamstring restricted his tournament to six games. Despite that, Bhuvneshwar had statistically his best year in ODIs, picking up 33 wickets at 23.75. As it turned out, the year ended with another painful body blow: a sports hernia meant that he didn’t add to his international caps before cricket was suspended due to Covid-19. “Frustrating,” said Bhuvneshwar. “But all I can do is wait.”

Even 2020 showed no remorse. Four games into IPL 2020, the comeback vehicle for many, Bhuvneshwar suffered a hip injury. Reports indicated that he was set to be out for a further six months, and might not return until 2021. That’s a huge layoff for a 30-year-old quick, who already spent the entire 2020 waiting for the resumption of international cricket.

And, given how Mohammad Siraj performed in his debut Test, and the line of quicks waiting after Bumrah, Shami, Ishant and Umesh, India’s Test line-up looks well-stocked as of now.

It’s a Test comeback many would love to see. Until then, reels of him tormenting Pakistan batsmen on his debut in the winter of 2012 is the only solace his fans have.

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