India-Pakistan games help make reputations quickly but they can, just as easily, destroy them too.
When India last played a game against Pakistan in 2021, in Dubai, it proved to be a nightmare for Bhuvneshwar Kumar. He wasn’t able to swing the ball and failed to produce a nip off the surface. The breakthrough with the new ball didn’t arrive and Pakistan won at a canter, with 10 wickets to spare.
With figures of 3-0-25-0, his economy rate of 8.33 was the second worst among the Indian bowlers. For the sheer emotions involved, a poor show in an India-Pakistan game is more noticeable. This flop show was at the biggest stage – the T20 World Cup. Players have paid a heavy price for a poor show in these games and Bhuvneshwar seemed to be no exception.
In that game, he was simply going through the motions. Was the fear of injury preventing him from bowling freely? He was never an express pacer but generating swing too requires a certain momentum push in the run-up and at the crease.
But credit to the Indian team management and selectors, for keeping the faith in the Uttar Pradesh pacer when everyone had seemingly written him off.
The series against New Zealand, immediately, after the World Cup, was important for Kumar’s confidence. The opening game at Jaipur’s Sawai Mansingh Stadium, on Nov 17, 2021, proved to be the turning point. Instead of being dropped, he found himself bowling the first ball of that match. Picking up an early wicket, opener Daryl Mitchell, helped to restore his confidence. With figures of 4-0-24-2, he was the best India pacer in the game, ahead of Deepak Chahar (4-0-42-1) and Mohammed Siraj (4-0-39-1).
The bowler from Meerut hasn’t looked back since. Playing regularly, he was outstanding in the recent series against South Africa, at home, and England and West Indies, away.
On Sunday, in the rematch against Pakistan, the 32-year-old Kumar was a changed bowler that Pakistan batters faced.
Back to his usual self, he was running in smoothly and with a purpose to return with figures of 4-26 in his four overs as India bundled out Pakistan for 147.
In the third over of the game, the experienced seamer got the wicket of Pakistan’s best batter and anchor, captain Babar Azam to set the tone for the game. The manner of the dismissal, via a well-directed bouncer, was proof of Kumar’s form. The green brigade never recovered from the early blow and lost wickets at regular intervals.
The hallmark of Kumar’s bowling is how he sets up the batters. An example of it was seen on Sunday in how he returned in the slog overs to dismiss big-hitting batter Asif Ali before getting the better of Shadab Khan and Naseem Shah in consecutive deliveries.
From a forgettable last outing, his bowling figures are now the best figure recorded by an Indian bowler in a T20I match against Pakistan.
“Honestly, I didn’t do anything different,” said Bhuvneshwar. “It was one bad game, which can happen with anyone. After that, I did the same practice, and same bowling routines. You need a bit of luck, and the luck favoured me, my performances were good.”
As his performance on the day proved, Kumar had done well to overcome the mental scars of the previous encounter against the arch-rivals. “After the World Cup was over, we had forgotten about that game. The expectations of the supporters are there of an India vs Pakistan game, but as a cricketer, as a team, we don’t think that way. We put it behind and prepare for the next series. We have lost against other teams also. Our focus is always on the upcoming matches,” said Kumar at the post-match press conference.
During his period of torment, his long injury list included: hamstring trouble, back issues, side strain, and a hip injury. In the 2020 IPL, he was able to play just four games.
In 2022, however, he was back to his usual, consistent self, with 12 wickets in 14 matches for Surisers Hyderabad. He has played continuously since the IPL, bowling with increasing confidence given how he has managed to stay fit. He is swinging the ball early and late as seen during the England series.
The competition for places has increased with a new crop of pacers coming up and there is Deepak Chahar who swings the new ball sharply. But, Bhuvneshwar has shown he is the leader of the attack in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah. With the ghost of October, 2021, buried, he should be even more confident now.