Bhuvi, Bumrah help India keep the pace

Sharing the new ball, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah helped India restrict South Africa to 35 runs in the first 10 overs. This move worked wonders for Virat Kohli’s men.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar celebrates the dismissal of South Africa’s Morne Morkel in London on Sunday.   -  AFP

Sometimes, Virat Kohli admitted, there was a need to “say things that hurt”, to be honest in criticism in defeat.

After India’s shock loss to Sri Lanka, he had asked his players for greater intensity on the field, a conscious effort individually, he said. On Sunday, they responded, exerting unrelenting pressure on South Africa with the ball and watching it snap. Between them, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Japsrit Bumrah sent down 15.3 overs for 51 runs, taking four wickets. Sharing the new ball, they helped restrict South Africa to 35 runs in the first 10 overs, Hashim Amla and the generally aggressive Quinton de Kock struggling to break free. It was this early pressure, both sides felt later, that had swung the game India's way.

Bhuvneshwar is a remarkable bowler. Mild-mannered and slight of build, he does not fit the stereotype of a medium-fast bowler but there is no debating his effectiveness. Last month, when Muttiah Muralitharan called him “the best bowler in IPL history”, it didn’t sound unreasonable. In and out of the one-day team since his debut in December 2012, Bhuvneshwar has emerged as a force in T20 cricket. Still, a career economy rate of 4.93 in ODIs would suggest that he hasn't been too shabby in this format either.

He proved his worth again at the Oval, tying South Africa down notwithstanding the fact that the ball barely swung on Sunday. Indeed, it hasn’t swung all fortnight—except a little in Cardiff—and even Bhuvneshwar was unable to provide an explanation. “It’s hard to say why the ball is not swinging,” he said.

“Generally, the wickets in England are not hard. We’ve toured here before. The wickets were soft; not so soft that the batsmen have a problem but enough for the ball to swing. So I don't know if that's the reason or if there's a difference in the quality of the balls. Hard to say… But everyone can see that it's not swinging and it's hard work for the bowlers.”

There may have been fears that this lack of swing could turn Bhuvneshwar—even with his improved pace—into a sitting duck, but they were proven unfounded. “It's difficult (when you rely on swing and the ball is not swinging). The only thing you have to change is length. Everyone is bowling a bit ‘back’, compared to what they normally bowl. Generally, we always look for wickets in the first 10 overs when the ball swings, but now we look to contain them and then take wickets when pressure builds. These are the few things we're changing," he said.

Bhuvneshwar has the experience of 62 ODIs behind him, but Bumrah is relatively new to international cricket. He made his debut only last year, when M.S. Dhoni called him the find of the Australian tour, and it is amazing how quickly the 23-year-old has risen to become an integral part of India’s limited-overs bowling units. Ahead of the Pakistan tie in Birmingham, Shahid Afridi had singled him out as a threat, marveling at his ability to bowl what he called the ‘Pakistani yorker’—presumably one that tails in at pace, like the delivery to dismiss Andile Phehlukwayo—at will.

In the IPL, Bumrah has earned a reputation as a notoriously tough death-overs bowler; at the Oval, he showed he was handy with the new ball too. “We (Bhuvneshwar and I) don’t focus on that when you get labelled as death bowler or a swing bowler,” he said afterwards.

“You always try to contribute whenever you are given the ball. You have to bowl according to the situation, be it at the death or in the beginning.”

They had quickly realised, Bhuvneshwar said, that this was not a pitch for wicket-taking but for drying runs up. “All they did was to try and hit the top of the off stump with a nice, tight fielding unit around, squeezing a lot of dot balls out of us and not allowing us any easy boundary options,” A.B. de Villiers felt.

They make for two unlikely leaders of India's pace attack but, as South Africa found out, Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar are rather formidable.

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