Bhuvaneshwar Kumar - In pursuit of the sweet spot in the trade-off between pace and swing
It is early to tell if Bhuvaneshwar has finally found that sweet spot between pace and swing. But one can definitely say he is as close to cracking it as he has ever been.
Short term goals vs long term vision, salary vs job satisfaction, attending lectures vs watching cricket match - trade-offs are everywhere. Trade-offs are not uncommon in the cricketing world too. Batsmen trade off between wicket preservation and scoring runs. And the spinners decide between throwing the ball up to entice a batsmen and keeping it flat to restrict run flow. Even the fielders decide between saving a boundary and going for a glory catch. Those players who make better trade off decisions distinguish themselves from the rest.
Nasir Jamshed, Pakistan's left handed opener, knew the ball would swing away from him, courtesy the seam position. But Jamshed couldn't come to terms with the degree of movement. He tried hard to put bat on ball, but the ball wouldn't stop swinging, right until it reached Dhoni's gloves. 2 balls, 2 unsuccessful tries later, Jamshed got one that jagged back in and rattled his stumps. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar had set up a batsmen in his first 3 deliveries of his international career with his prodigious swing. The day was 25th December 2012 in Bangalore. Bhuvaneshwar and 'swinging it both ways' became an instant hit.
In his first year of international cricket, Bhuvaneshwar would torment every top-order he played against, challenging both edges of the bat. All this at an average speed in that late 120s. In the test leg of the tour to England in 2014, Bhuvaneshwar picked up 19 wickets. As impressive as that haul was, if you break that series up into two blocks, there were troubling signs of a decline.
The flatter tracks in Australia later that year brought those troubles to light. He hardly managed to make the XI in the test. In the Sydney test, the only test he played in that tour, he didn't any movement in the air or off the deck. And his slow medium pace made matters worse. The batsmen took guard well outside their crease and never remained static at the crease. This denied time for Bhuvaneshwar to work his magic. They scored at 4 runs per over of him, a rate unheard of against him until then, in tests.
This new ball dependence and lack of pace also meant most of his overs in the 50 over format had to be within the first 20. In fact, in his first 2 years Bhuvaneshwar bowled around 75% of his overs within the 20 over mark. He did a specific task for his captain, keeping the lid on the scoring rate and producing a couple of early wickets. But the flip side of his limited skillset meant there wasn't much leeway to bowl him in the death and middle overs.
It kick started Bhuvaneshwar Kumar's quest for the sweet spot in the trade-off between pace and movement. This very process had brought careers of similar talented pacers in India to a halt.
Over the next couple of years, Bhuvaneshwar added a good 5 miles to his bowling, thanks to a lot of power training. He worked on everything from head to toe. He had runaway success in IPL 2016 and 2017, picking up wickets upfront and at the death. He bagged 49 wickets over the 2 editions. His new found pace helped him nail the yorkers at the death and made his slower balls more menacing.
But the pursuit of a sweet spot in the trade-off rarely comes without a heavy price to pay. In Bhuvaneshwar's case, in pursuit of extra pace, he lost much of his movement through the air. It was not until 2018 when he regained some of his swing. A sharp in-swinger to AB De Villiers in the Johannesburg test in 2018 was the first evidence of how Bhuvaneshwar was close to cracking the puzzle. He played two tests in that tour to South Africa and looked mighty impressive. Things were falling into place ahead of the England tour later that year. But, Bhuvaneshwar had to pay yet another price for his pace pursuit - injuries. Hip, back, ankle and hamstring
When he featured in the first T20 at Ahmedabad against England recently, his wait of 457 days to don the blue came to an end. First tings first, he played all the 5 T20Is with no fitness concerns. He bowled the difficult overs for his captain. The whole repertoire was on display - the pace, the swing, leg cutters, off-cutters and knuckle ball. According to CricViz, he was the most impactful bowler of the series.
It is early to tell if Bhuvaneshwar has finally found that sweet spot between pace and swing. But one can definitely say he is as close to cracking it as he has ever been. Hopefully, the price he had to pay for this relentless pursuit has been paid and he leaves a template in place for the budding swing bowlers to follow. You and I can take a lesson from his pursuit as well.