Bhuvneshwar Kumar was a surprising omission from India’s Test squad in helpful swinging conditions in England but by naming him vice-captain of the limited overs’ team to Sri Lanka the selectors made a big statement that the veteran pacer was still very much in the mix in white-ball cricket for the country. With two successive World T20 tournaments slotted for 2021 and 2022 and the World Cup in India in 2013, a fit and more lethal Kumar could have a major impact with the ball for India.
Kumar has picked 138 wickets in 117 matches at an average of 34.07 and strike rate of 40.7 for India in ODI cricket. He had never been a big wicket-taker for India in the format but what stood out was his ability to restrict the opposition batsmen. Kumar has been one of the most economical bowlers in the world since the debut against Pakistan in December, 2012. His economy rate of 5.01 is amongst the best in the world in this time-frame. In fact, amongst the 23 bowlers who have picked a minimum of 100 wickets post Kumar’s debut, his economy places him at number 9.
THE ODI TRANSFORMATION
Kumar had a tally of 99 wickets in 95 matches at an average of 38.22 and strike rate of 45.9 with an economy rate of 4.98 till the end of 2018. His ODI fortunes changed dramatically from 2019. While he continued to be a master restrictor, Kumar added an extra dimension to his bowling - his wicket-taking prowess rose exponentially and the right-arm medium pacer returned with 39 wickets from 22 matches at an average of 23.56 and strike rate of 27.5 with an economy rate of 5.13 hereafter.
Kumar’s new-found wicket-taking ability coupled with his restrictive qualities places him as the number 1 pace bowler in the world in terms of bowling average post 2019 (min. 30 wickets). He has conceded fewer runs per wicket than big names like Jofra Archer, Trent Boult, Mohammed Shami and Pat Cummins in this time-frame.
A combination of wickets taken, average, strike rate and economy indicates that Kumar has been India’s best fast bowler in ODI cricket since 2019 - even better than his two more famous counterparts Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami.
Kumar was India’s unsung hero of the 2-1 series triumph against England at home in March 2021. He bagged six crucial wickets at critical junctures and was the most economical bowler of the series giving away just 4.65 runs per over. He was brilliant with the new ball as well as the death. He delivered as many as 106 dot balls in the series which implied that nearly 60% of his deliveries were not scored off in the series.
Kumar brings variety to India’a pace attack and has the ability to swing the new ball which with his highly accurate and disciplined bowling becomes a lethal combination. He also has the ability to bowl yorkers consistently which makes him the go-to bowler at the death. His experience of playing the big matches and under pressure in different situations also adds to what he brings to the table.
As he bowls a majority of his overs during the powerplay and at the death, Kumar is a high impact bowler for India in ODI cricket and someone whose performance can dictate the difference between victory and defeat for the country.
A BRILLIANTLY RESTRICTIVE T20 BOWLER
Kumar’s quintessential quality in limited overs’ cricket of choking the opposition batsmen for runs is his main weapon in T20 cricket. He has picked 45 wickets in 48 matches for India in the format at an economy rate of just 6.98. Like in the ODIs, Kumar had impressed with his performance on his comeback into the Indian XI in the T20I series too.
He produced a Player of the Match performance in the decider against England in Ahmedabad picking two big wickets - Jason Roy in the very first over and Jos Buttler just when it looked like the England opener was taking the match away from India. In a match where the average scoring rate was above 10 per over, Kumar conceded just 15 runs off his 4 overs delivering as many as 17 dot balls - it was a brilliant display of T20 bowling by the seamer.
Amongst the 37 pace bowlers who have taken a minimum of 40 wickets in their career, Kumar’s economy rate places him at number 6 - that is an outstanding achievement for someone who has been in and out of the team. Economy is the most important parameter in T20 cricket and Kumar is right up there with the best.
He was at the peak of his prowess against the best in the world in the IPL between 2014 and 2017 - a period in which he was amongst the highest impact fast bowlers in the coveted league. Kumar was the highest wicket-taker in the 2017 edition when he returned with 26 wickets in just 14 matches at a strike rate of 12 and economy rate of 7.05.
His performance in the limited overs series against England has earned him a place on the tour to Sri Lanka and by naming him vice-captain the selectors have sent a clear message - that they see Kumar as a senior member of the Indian XI, at least in white-ball cricket who brings that X-factor with his swing bowling. Kumar will be the senior-most Indian pacer in Sri Lanka and a good performance with the ball in the island nation could result in him leading India’s pace attack in the three successive world events between 2021 and 2023.
A more lethal wicket-taking Kumar could well turn out to be India’s trump card in these tournaments.