When India were last in England for a full-fledged tour, the Test series began promisingly but ended abjectly. The man who emerged with maximum credit though, was Bhuvneshwar Kumar. With his gift for making the ball move through the air, Bhuvneshwar reaped success in conditions that aided his style. From that breakthrough moment, the bowler has battled ups and downs. Today, with the team back in England, he has emerged as one of the men who can command a place in India’s squad for all three formats. Before the Indian team left for the United Kingdom, Bhuvneshwar sat down with Wisden India to speak on how he increased his pace but maintained his swing, switching from red-ball to white-ball cricket, not showing overt aggression on the field, and much more. Excerpts:
In your career, would you say the England series in 2014 was the big breakthrough for you?
No, I never take any series I perform in as breakthroughs. I had the advantage of playing in England, but at the same time there was pressure also. Since we were playing in England, there were expectations from me because I’m a swing bowler. So I had to balance myself between taking advantage of the conditions and also bowling when the ball was not swinging for a few sessions.
It’s all about assessing the conditions. If it’s swinging, I should go all out to take wickets. If it’s not swinging, I should contain the runs. But yes, that was a series where I learned a lot.
Why do you think the series didn’t end the way it started?
I don’t know. In the first two matches we bowled and batted really well. From the third Test onwards, we couldn’t bat very well and we also gave 500 runs in the first innings. We couldn’t click as a whole. And we were also not used to playing five-match Test series. We mostly played four and that too not much. That could be the reason because the moment we played two matches we were in a zone where we thought the series was about to be won. We lost the third match okay, but when it comes to the fourth and fifth Test, we were tired. Everyone gets tired but we were not in the zone that we have to play a fourth and fifth match. It doesn’t mean we were not fit, but that’s how your body is used to things. That was a big learning for each and every one.
On why India lost 3-1 in England in 2014
“We were also not used to playing five-match Test series. We mostly played four and that too not much. That could be the reason because the moment we played two matches we were in a zone where we thought the series was about to be won. We lost the third match okay, but when it comes to the fourth and fifth Test, we were tired. Everyone gets tired but we were not in the zone that we have to play a fourth and fifth match. It doesn’t mean we were not fit, but that’s how your body is used to things.”
You’re back to England for the Champions Trophy 2017 now, and you had done well in the last one too. Thoughts and expectations from the tournament?
I always love bowling in England. But in the last Champions Trophy I played, I was expecting big swing. But the ball hardly swung in one or two matches. So in one-dayers that’s how the wickets will be, doesn’t matter where you are playing. This year also I’m expecting that I’ll do well, because my form has been good. But at the same time, there is no pressure. In the Test series there was pressure because I was new and I was taking extra pressure on myself since I knew the ball will swing and I have to take wickets. But you can say I’m more mature this time. I know I have to just give my 100% and things will take care of themselves.
You are coming in on the back of a great IPL but a lot of the others in the Indian team haven’t had the best form. Any concerns this poses, leading into a major tournament?
I don’t think so. There isn’t anyone whose IPL form has been bad. Moreover, T20 is a different game and 50 overs is a different game. T20 is so fast that sometimes it happens that one or two matches don’t go your way and things don’t go your way from there. But 50 overs gives you time to come back. When you are batting or bowling you can think about how things are going and plan. But I’m not really concerned about anything.
You’ve said lately that you have increased your pace, and it’s visible too. But how do you increase pace at this late stage?
I didn’t increase it intentionally. I wanted to, but I didn’t work specifically to increase it. Speed comes the more you get fit. Since Shankar Basu, the trainer of the Indian team, came into the set-up he changed a few programs in the gym. The things he added really helped me. He did a kind of power training. Generally we do strength training in the gym, but he added power training. It’s totally from head to toe. One exercise can exercise your whole body and in those you have to use power and speed. That’s the thing which added power to my muscles and gave me speed.
What is the difference between strength training versus power training?
You do slow movements in strength training, and in power training you do fast movements. And cricket, especially fast bowling, is all about fast movements. Till now I never could do those fast movements with the strength I have now.
So you increased your pace. But how did you maintain your ability to swing the ball? People often lose it when pace increases?
It didn’t go because I didn’t increase my pace to 145kph. I used to bowl 130-132kph, now it’s from 135 to 140. If you want to maintain your swing, you have to normally bowl within 140 … I’m not saying that’s an iron rule, but if you bowl within 140, the ball swings.
There was a series against South Africa where I increased the pace, but because of some technical errors, I wasn’t swinging the ball. So after that series I realised I have to maintain swing along with pace and worked on it. That series I increased my pace, after that I maintained my swing.
How did you get the swing back?
Swing is all about your wrist position and alignment from the moment you land your front foot till you release the ball. It should be in one line. Because I increased my pace, my body wasn’t used to that fast movement, so unknowingly I lose the swing. I lost alignment so my wrist position wasn’t good. Later on I realised that because of my new pace and strength, I’m running in quicker and my body is not used to that fast movement. That is why the alignment – and not just that, but landing the foot, the release position – everything wasn’t clicking in the way you need for the ball to swing.
Once I realised that, I knew that I had to bring it back.
You had to sort of retrain yourself as this new, faster bowler?
I did, but it wasn’t tough for me because I used to do all that when my pace was lesser. It took me about a week and a few days to get it back. Not much time.
Everyone says the wrist position is the most important thing for a swing bowler…
Wrist position is all about holding the ball. When you bowl inswing, the seam is facing fine-leg for the right-hander and it comes into the batsman. If it faces slips or third man, it goes away from the batsman. So wrist position is all about where you want to position the seam of the ball. It’s really tough to say… Only wrist position can’t get the ball to swing. I’ve seen many bowlers who had good wrist and seam position but they still couldn’t swing it. It takes everything from where you land your front foot, your hip position, your upper body position. So it’s everything, but the wrist position is the last thing before you release the ball. So it’s the most important thing.
On power training
Since Shankar Basu, the trainer of the Indian team, came into the set-up he changed a few programs in the gym. Generally we do strength training in the gym, but he added power training. It’s totally from head to toe. One exercise can exercise your whole body and in those you have to use power and speed. That’s the thing which added power to my muscles and gave me speed.
You are able to get the ball to swing both ways without too many discernible changes though…
That’s because my action is so straight – I’m kind of semi-open. Generally you have side-on or front-on bowlers, but my upper body is open. That helps me put the wrist in a good position and I don’t have to change much. If you take the example of a side-on bowler, they have to change things totally. If they are outswing bowlers and want to bowl inswing, they have to be front-on.
The benefit with me is that my upper body is front-on, so I don’t have to change anything. That’s an advantage for me.
India’s last Test series India played against Australia was among the best. On the final day in Dharamsala, the intensity in the bowling attack seemed to hit another level. Can you talk me through that day and its emotions?
As you know, Virat (Kohli) wasn’t playing in that match so there was added responsibility on each of us to make up for his absence. It was very intense series, the most intense in the whole season. They played better than any of the other teams who had come. They bowled well, batted well and had plans for each one of us. It was a series we badly wanted to win.
If you talk about my spell, I hadn’t played the game before that so it was tough for me. Well not tough, but it takes a few overs to get into match rhythm. By the time I bowled in the second innings, I already knew what’s happening on the pitch and I was in rhythm.
You spoke about having not played the previous Test. It’s becoming a recurring theme for you, that you come in, do well but there’s still no guarantee you’ll be playing the next match. How difficult is it to adjust to that, mindset wise?
It is difficult, but when you know the team management is there for you… and that’s how things have been. Everyone is playing according to the situation. It doesn’t matter if you took five wickets, if the conditions are suitable for someone else, he’ll play. That’s a good thing for the team. If the conditions aid swing, I’ll be the first bowler. In the long term, it’s good for the team. The credit goes to the team management as well. They never made me feel, ‘You are not good for this situation’. They always communicate clearly, that ‘This is the thing and that is why you are not playing’. They never made you feel left out.
I took five wickets in West Indies and didn’t play the next Test in Kanpur (against New Zealand). But they made things really clear and I knew that I have to keep working on my game, because I’ll get a game soon.
You made the shift from a long red-ball season to playing with the white ball very smoothly. It’s not been the case for everyone. What have you done different?
You know when I was playing Test matches, I was also preparing for that by doing stuff like bowling yorkers. At the end of the nets, when the ball was reversing, I would bowl yorkers. It’s not that I was consciously preparing for IPL during a Test match, but in India, the ball reverses more when it’s old. So yorkers are something we bowl in Test matches as well. So to bring that into the T20 format, I didn’t have to work extra hard.
It’s a different format, batsmen have the total license to go after bowlers whether it’s a good ball or bad ball.
Touching on yorkers, how much do you practice them? Even in a T20 matches, of the 24 balls you bowl, maybe six to eight at the most will be yorkers? How much practice do you need for a delivery that will be used only six times in a match?
A lot! To bowl those six yorkers in the match properly, you might have to bowl at least 25 to 30 in the nets. Not that there is a count to it or anything, but it requires a lot of practice. In the nets, especially when the lower middle-order batsmen come – like Hardik Pandya or MS Dhoni – we always bowl ‘death’ to them and bowl a lot of yorkers. It becomes practice for both of us, because we need to perfect yorkers and they also are likely to face that when they go out to bat in the match.
In one-dayers, the ball keeps new for maybe five to six overs. You have to practice a lot to get those small percentages in your favour in the match.
Bhuvneshwar’s rule for getting swing
“I used to bowl 130-132kph, now it’s from 135 to 140. If you want to maintain your swing, you have to normally bowl within 140 … I’m not saying that’s an iron rule, but if you bowl within 140, the ball swings.”
What do you aim at when you bowl a yorker?
I always aim at a batsman’s toe or heel. I never aim at the base of the stumps. I aim at exactly where I want to bowl.
Some coaches advise aiming at the knees, because automatically the ball goes lower?
I know many bowlers do that, but it doesn’t work for me. I feel that if I’m aiming at the top of the stumps and it’s landing at the toes, then there’s something wrong with me. Because I’m aiming something else and it’s falling somewhere else. Either it’s in the way I’m releasing, or it’s a mental thing. That’s how things work for me. If I aim something and the ball falls somewhere else, then something is wrong with my thinking or technique. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong for other bowlers to do it – but this is what works for me.
Outside of team India, you have played with a lot of reputed cricketers in Sunrisers Hyderabad. Whose brain there do you pick the most?
It’s very tough to say. Kane (Williamson) is a very smart cricketer. Dale Steyn was also there. But when we play in a match, every individual won’t come to a bowler. They’ll go to the captain and the captain will come to the bowler.
I never really picked someone’s brains as such, but yes we discuss cricket. Not so much about other players but how things go in New Zealand, or Kane will ask me how things go in India.
You’re one of the rare fast bowlers who never get angry. Was there ever a moment when Steyn perhaps suggested you should get more ‘aggro’ in your game?
No, he never told me anything like that. We played for two-three years together and he used to advise me on bowling, but he never told me to change it. No one has told me to, actually.
Do you ever feel that it might help you if you show more aggression?
No, I’ve never felt that. If I try to get more angry or aggressive on the field, I will have to make a conscious effort to do that. So then my focus will go somewhere other than where it should be. My demeanour comes naturally to me. It doesn’t mean I never get angry or aggressive, but it’s not after making a conscious effort to be like that. I am naturally a calm person.
On not playing every Test
“It doesn’t matter if you took five wickets, if the conditions are suitable for someone else, he’ll play. If the conditions aid swing, I’ll be the first bowler. In the long term, it’s good for the team. The credit goes to the team management as well. They never made me feel, ‘You are not good for this situation’. They always communicate clearly, that ‘This is the thing and that is why you are not playing’. They never made you feel left out.”
Your IPL coach Tom Moody has said that he cannot understand how you are not part of the India XI in every match…
It’s all about form and conditions. Of course, it’s nice to hear your coach say that and show so much confidence in you. He even asked me to speak to the younger bowlers in Hyderabad. It feels good, the importance he is giving to me.
What do you think is the most important attribute to be a fast bowler in India?
It’s different for everyone. Like you spoke about aggression – for Ishant it really works. He can’t come and keep bowling in that calm zone. That keeps him going for longer spells. For Shami it’s different. Umesh is someone who loves to bowl with the old ball. He’s so quick that when it reverses, he suddenly gets into that zone where he’s mostly unplayable. So it’s different things for different bowlers.
Your art is more subtle and you’re understated on the field. Do you think sometimes that you are appreciated less because of that?
I used to think about all those things in the first year or so because I wasn’t that mature. If someone appreciates you more, you get carried away (when you are younger). But I’ve overcome all that. If they appreciate me, I smile and say thanks. If they criticise me, I think ‘That’s their job’. Now these things don’t matter to me.