Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowls at 130 kph range. He generally bowls full, so that he can maximise the air-time and get more swing – his primary art. He mostly sticks to a simple game plan – after several full-length away swingers, he bowls the in-cutter that’s slightly short of length. It’s the delivery that sneaks between the forward moving left stride that hasn’t yet been planted and the tentative bat to hit the stumps. But on Sunday, India’s new ball bowler struck the most-vital blow of the India-Pak Asia Cup with a very un-Bhuvi ball. He got Pakistan’s in-form captain Babar Azam with a bouncer.
There’s a reason banging the ball in his half of the pitch isn’t a plan that Bhuvneshwar usually follows. Being from the Meerut gharana – Praveen Kumar being the famous ustaad of that cricketing hub – Bhuvi is programmed to bowl full and let the ball float around like a butterfly. He doesn’t have the pace to surprise the batsmen or infuse dread in their minds. With Bhuvneshwar running in, batsmen don’t fear getting hit.
So what worked for Bhuvi? Actually, it was still the Indian pacer’s reputed swing that had a role to play in him getting the wicket of Babar with a short one. To understand this, see where Babar is standing when facing India’s very own Sultan of Swing. The Pakistan opener’s back leg is on the crease and front one is a stride head. It’s an old ploy batsmen use to cut the swing.
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So when the batsman shifts down the pitch, the bowlers tend to pull back the length. This reduces two things – the ball’s air-time and as a result the swing. MS Dhoni had a ploy to bring the batsmen back to the crease. He would stand up, just next to the stumps. This would force the batsmen to retreat back to the crease, since they knew that missing the ball would mean getting stumped.
The tactic had one disadvantage. Most swing bowlers – Praveen and Bhuvi – hate when the keeper stands up. This isn’t just an ego thing since that is just a public admonition of lack of pace. No new ball bowler in the world likes this. A famous story goes that once when the captain Sunil Gavaskar found his young spearhead Kapil Dev not bowling at his full pace, he asked the wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani to stand up to the stumps. Kapil stopped in his tracks, got the message, sent Kirmani back and upped his pace.
Besides, there is another factor. Wicket-keeper not sticking to his usual place makes them conscious and this impacts their natural rhythm. At the back of the mind is the fact that an error in line would mean ‘4 byes’.
On Sunday, Dinesh Karthik didn’t stand up since the team had a different bowling plan. Look at the field placement when Bhuvneshwar started the Indian innings. Square leg and third man were the only two fielders out of the 30-yard circle. Arshdeep Singh inside the circle at short fine leg.
Statistics show that Babar gets out executing the pull quite often. It’s a misleading statistic, it’s not his weakness. It’s just that he plays the stroke more often. It’s an old cricketing truth – the short that gives you most runs is also the reason for your many dismissals.
Babar is a safe player of the pull. He plays it down and in front of the square. The Indian bowling group would have discussed that a short ball to Babar with just one man on the leg side would force him to play the pull. He did.
The Pakistan captain did most things right – he was in position and he was trying to keep the ball down. But a couple of things went against him – he was standing out of the crease and Bhuvi isn’t an express pacer. Babar didn’t get the space to manoeuvre the pull resulting in him mistiming the ball. Bhuvi’s pace wasn’t in the 140 kph range so the ball didn’t fly over the fence. It landed in the hands of Arshdeep at short fine leg.
One other thing foxed Babar: the bounce. Watch his pull, again. It’s a horizontal bat-shot, usually deployed to chest-high balls. But this rose higher, towards the shoulder, and kept climbing, and the way the bat came horizontally across the chest wasn’t going to be ideal. Because he was standing outside the crease, he met the ball at its steepest climb up, making things more difficult for him. At the last instant, due to the extra bounce, Babar ends up at an awkward position, the bat-face tilting up towards the skies when he makes contact. Not surprising then, it popped straight up.
It was a game-changing dismissal everyday can’t be Sunday. Babar is too fine a batsman to get out pulling a 130 kph bouncer with just one man guarding the square leg fence. And Bhuvi is too versatile to stick to the same plan. Babar vs Bhuvi Round Two will see the clever cricketer coming with fresh tactics.