Bhuvneshwar Kumar calmly chasing the old zing

There was a time when Bhuvneshwar Kumar could nail his yorkers like David Miller connects his sixes now. Not being able to do that considerably wears down his effectiveness, possibly more because Kumar doesn’t have Umran Malik steaming in or Rashid Khan spinning a web from the other end.

In the India shirt, leading a bowling attack without Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, Kumar can’t shake off the onerous task of shepherding the bowling till the last ball, now more than ever.

Here’s why: The defeat in Delhi was the first time India failed to defend a 200-plus total. In the last 10 overs, India conceded 126 runs, the most by a team in a defeat till date. It was also the second time since the T20 World Cup loss to Pakistan last October (where Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan stitched a 152-run opening stand) that India have conceded a 100-plus partnership-131 runs between Rassie van der Dussen and David Miller. These are damning numbers, especially on the heels of an IPL that just impressed us with a wealth of bowling talent capable of defending a range of scores.

Yet when you check the economies of the same bowlers in the first T20I-Yuzvendra Chahal going for 12 runs per over, Harshal Patel and Axar Patel leaking 10.75 and 10 per over, it dawns on you that T20Is are not like IPL. Except may be Kumar, whose experience transcends the vagaries of IPL and international cricket. End of the 17th over, South Africa needed 34 from 18 balls, by no means impossible in T20s. This was exactly where Kumar of the past could have made the difference. But his first ball was so perfectly placed in David Miller’s arc that all he needed to do was clear his front leg and heave it over long-on for six. Another sobering six and two boundaries later, South Africa had reduced the equation to 12 off 12. Neither did the yorkers land in the right slot nor were the leg-cutters doing the trick.

Kumar’s accuracy was one of the wonders that made him such a good slog-overs bowler for a long time. And considering he had defended 12 off the last over against Royal Challengers Bangalore’s AB de Villiers in the 2021 IPL, Kumar’s slide isn’t too recent as well. He is not reading too much into it though.

“We discussed after the game what went wrong but it was just the first match of the series,” he said at the pre-match press conference here on Saturday. Everyone is coming from IPL and almost everyone who is in the team had a good IPL. So everyone knows what needs to be done in tomorrow’s match and things we can improve upon. So there wasn’t a big discussion because anyone can have an off day.”

Kumar’s mettle as seam bowler is unquestionable. He can not only swing the ball both ways, he can do that off disconcerting lengths through the Powerplay. With Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma aggressively fronting the batting for South Africa, Kumar is the perfect foil with his assortment of swing, seam and angled deliveries. But he is also racing against time to seal that third seamer’s slot for the T20 World Cup in Australia this year. For that, he needs some of these slog-over scenarios to go his way.

It still isn’t a straightforward selection even if Kumar pulls back a few matches. For years, Kumar’s seam bowling made him an asset upfront but now he also has to compete with bowlers like Prasidh Krishna who not only have pace but can extract bounce on Australian pitches. The only way Kumar can strengthen his case is by taking charge of the bowling, and by being a leader of the attack. But this new avatar may not rest easy on his shoulders. Age does tricks to a fast bowler’s body. Kumar has been privy to it since January 2018 when he last bowled in a Test. That he still maintained this image of a stealthy operator of the cricket ball till recently is totally his doing, but what he does next may define his timeline.

“My target is not any different. I just have to bowl in the same way as in the power play or in the death overs,” said the 32-year-old. What Kumar has achieved in terms of numbers stems from the makeup of a bowler who knows his body’s limits. No Bumrah or Shami this time makes his job more challenging but Kumar is quietly up for it. “Yes, in their absence, I try to take up responsibility. The focus is on improving in every match before going to the T20 World Cup.”