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England v India

What next for Bhuvneshwar Kumar?

Bhuvneshwar Kumar Test
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read

Left out of India’s Test squad for the England tour, Bhuvneshwar Kumar‘s red-ball career remains in limbo. However, there’s still a white-ball story to be written, writes Aadya Sharma.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s most recent Instagram post (presumably for commercial commitments) has him enacting a rapper in a video, with the hashtag “#KhelaKyaChallenge” featuring in bold letters. “Khela Kya” essentially means “Did you play?”

After India’s latest squad announcement, there’s probably one question that many would want to ask Bhuvneshwar, the Test cricketer – “When did you last play?”

Among Indian seamers who have bowled in at least 20 Test innings, Bhuvneshwar’s bowling average of 26.09 is bettered only by Jasprit Bumrah. In his last Test – Johannesburg, 2018 – he ended with the Player of the Match award for match figures of 4-83. But he hasn’t played a single first-class game since, not even in domestic cricket.

When India announced their squad for the England tour, six seamers included, Bhuvneshwar’s absence left social media into a tizzy once again.

With swing being his USP, and impeccable accuracy to match that, Bhuvneshwar is made for operating in breezy, damp English conditions. In five matches during his last visit, he snared 19 wickets, including two five-wicket hauls, including career-best figures of 6-82 that played a part in India’s famous win at Lord’s.

That was seven years ago, and the right-armer has added only 13 Test caps since then.

Injuries (and poor workload management) have played a big part in his declining Test career: an ankle injury in 2015, back issues in 2018 and hamstring troubles in the last two seasons have all contributed to his prolonged absence. Last year, his IPL stint lasted just four games before a hip injury floored him, and this time, ahead of a four-month-long tour that could have possibly revitalised his Test career, a thigh strain compounded his struggles. It didn’t help that the IPL got suspended soon after, and a powerful Indian pace unit was announced soon after, leaving the 31-year-old, once a vital part of it, in the cold again.

Is that it for his Test career then? Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Siraj are the current crop, and there’s Navdeep Saini and T Natarajan waiting in the wings – all of them having played at least one Test since Bhuvneshwar’s last appearance. There’s also an exciting list of backup seamers that travel with the team, all younger than him (and also a tad bit quicker).

Speed was never Bhuvneshwar’s speciality though, and while he did add extra pace to his arsenal, he also developed cutters and slower ones to keep evolving in white-ball cricket. Clawing back into Test cricket might be really tough from here on, but he is likely to have an easier return path in limited-overs. And in his recent most international series, he proved that, even with his fragile body, he hasn’t lost the ability to make the ball talk.

In the ODI series against England in March, where the 300-run total was breached in all but one innings, Bhuvneshwar claimed six wickets @ 22.50 at a remarkable economy of 4.65. He was equally impressive in the T20Is that preceded it, claiming four wickets @ 28.75 at an economy of just 6.38. The same attributes that made him a world-class bowler were on display again – immense control, the knack for producing movement out of thin air and the ability to take wickets both upfront and at the death.

The last bit could especially hold him in good stead when India chalks its T20 World Cup plans for this year. In a global tournament, India would need someone to complement Bumrah at the death while also keeping a tab on the runs in the powerplay. And that’s probably the route for Bhuvneshwar now. As he goes further into his thirties, the body might play against him even more often, and long spells might not be a regular feature, but there aren’t many bowlers who can substitute for the experience and control he offers, and the importance both can play in a high-pressure tournament, especially if it happens on run-heavy tracks at home.

It’s probably a blessing in disguise then – a single-minded focus on white-ball cricket could be the way forward for him. India may well have seen the last of him in whites, but there’s still plenty left to come with the white ball.

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