IPL 2022 – Bhuvneshwar Kumar is still one of the sharpest and most skilled bowlers in T20

There is a whisper about fast bowlers of a certain age, and for medium fast guys it comes earlier and is louder. It’s the muffled chorus of thousands of people wondering if they’ve lost their pinch, lost the court, lost that little bit of extra rhythm that allows them to be dangerous.

Ishant Sharma got it recently. After years of dominating batters the world over, the collective wisdom about his recent dip in form is that he just doesn’t draw the same energy from the wicket. Bowlers, setters in particular, are sometimes almost seen as that disposable asset. Used until they are no longer physically able to do their job, then thrown away for the next six-foot-five guy who hits the deck hard.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar had these comments and thoughts directed at him last year when he had his worst IPL season, taking just six wickets in 11 matches. It has never been so fast; that this crisis came when he was over 30 and had just recovered from a season-ending injury the previous year led people to think his time at the top was over.

But that same year he did some of his best work tormenting an England side on incredibly flat pitches. On March 20, 2021, he played against England in a match that had 412 points. Bhuvneshwar’s four overs went for 15, and he fired Jason Roy and Jos Buttler. No other Indian bowler has made less than 8.50 points per over.

Three weeks later he was in the IPL, and he went to an over-11 save in two of his first three matches, and nine in the last before the Covid break. In the second part of the season, he regained the upper hand in his economy, but only took three wickets in six matches.

So you could take the leap to say he was over if you looked at Bhuvneshwar last season and only his IPL form. Maybe he lost that little extra off the pitch and that made him less powerful.

But it’s worth talking about why it’s been so good for years when it’s never been big, fast or unconventional, which is usually what helps in the T20. His primary skill is skill. This perfect wrist gave him a very good test average. But it was an asset that translated better to white-ball cricket than other similar bowlers like Vernon Philander and Mohammad Abbas. And one of the reasons is that Bhuvneshwar moves the ball a lot more than most bowlers, and he does it in two directions.

At first, he’s almost like a legpinner because most of his balls are on and around an off-stump line. But he can also miss the two-foot stump with an outswinger and then bring it back to the leg with an inswinger. This is not a usual cricket skill.

Most seam bowlers can only bowl with an outswinger or an inswinger. Because their actions are made for this kind of service. Some can play both, but they can only master one. And there are bowlers who can deliver both but struggle to do so with the new white ball because it slips away from them. Bhuvneshwar can move in and out at will, with precision, with the brightest of new bullets.

This skill is important in T20 because when you try to smash him in the ring for a limit, depending on his mood, a ball angled towards your stump can hit the leg or be about 50cm wider than the outside. It’s a disturbing amount of lateral movement and very difficult to line up.

It’s a superpower. And he’s been so good over the years that teams have changed the way they play him early. They are now trying not to be fired by him. It’s incredibly rare in T20, but Bhuvneshwar is a powerplay genius.

But he is also good at death. Not Lasith Malinga or Jasprit Bumrah, but he’s still a good death thrower, and the ball doesn’t swing there. So he uses his incredible accuracy and cricketing intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone. He has a good, slower ball, but it’s not like he’s Dwayne Bravo. And given that he has such a normal outing and isn’t that fast, it’s unbelievable that he could have had such a good career.

Bhuvneshwar has been one of the best bowlers in IPL history year after year. And it’s well-tested, it’s had the most sewing deliveries of anyone. And then when he slipped last season, people were too quick to suggest he was about to leave.

It was a terrible year but Bhuvneshwar kept his economy in the IPL at 7.97 which is good for most bowlers but high for him. His career T20 save rate is 7.17, and it was his most expensive year. However, it was his average that scored the most – he took those six wickets at 56, and he was the only setter with over 200 deliveries who took less than ten wickets.

Of course, he did it amid the Sunrisers who ran into a brick wall on and off the field. His – and their – season was so bad that the franchise didn’t retain him before the auction. They may have assumed other teams would be wary of him as well, and they were right. Only the Lucknow Super Giants really offered a decent amount, and he eventually went to SRH for half of what he had four years earlier. Now, part of that was probably due to his age: older rapids are more concerning. But he had been one of the most bankable local designers in the competition, and it was one hell of a haircut.

For example, Umesh Yadav went for only half the money Bhuvneshwar did, and was even overlooked in the first round of bidding. But last year he didn’t play any IPL matches, and the year before he took no wickets in his two games and went 12-over. And his career numbers are a far cry from what Bhuvneshwar has achieved. But Umesh is fast, even when things have gone bad for him, and although he hasn’t mastered his T20 bowling consistently, he can throw the ball. It’s very easy to see and excite. What Bhuvneshwar does is much more subtle.

There aren’t many bowlers like Bhuvneshwar who have been as good either, so what he does doesn’t seem as repeatable. And we’re regularly told that being so predictable is a problem for T20 bowlers. You can be too specific. This has never been a problem for Bhuvneshwar.

This year it’s back to what you’d expect, averaging just over 30, but with a saving of 7.25. There is no doubt that he was one of the best designers this year. And he did it when his team played incredibly well and also when they all gave up and he was on his own.

As sports fans, we’re obsessed with being the first to call when someone’s finished, to say their time is up. And with all those not fast-fast, we expect the slight dip that ends their effectiveness. Whether or not an injury caused the problem.

When a bowler is this good with the ball and has a bowling brain of this caliber, it’s always worth the wait a little longer. A bad season can hit anyone in T20, whisper it, but a talent like this doesn’t die overnight.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

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