Having drawn at Trent Bridge, India had pulled off a famous victory at Lord’s on a green-tinged pitch expected to play into English hands.
Their all-round hero was a light-eyed, frail-looking pace bowler from Uttar Pradesh. Until that summer, Bhuvneshwar Kumar had not even played a Test outside India. But in two games, he grafted 209 runs while seeing off a remarkable 442 balls, and took 11 wickets for 185. India, it seemed, had a new cricketing idol, and England — with Matt Prior already having quit the series and Alastair Cook’s captaincy hanging by a thread — were in disarray.
In such circumstances, it is easy to ride the populist wave. One man who did not was Michael Holding, the West Indies cricket legend. Before the third Test, when Joe Dawes — then India’s bowling coach — asked him to take a look at his charges, Holding did not like what he saw.
“They will not last five Tests,” he told this correspondent. “The legs aren’t strong enough.”
The downturn in Bhuvneshwar’s performances were the best illustration of what Holding had seen. In the next three matches — Old Trafford and the Oval were so seam-friendly that England ran riot — Bhuvneshwar took eight for 321. Those were not disgraceful figures, but they were hugely disappointing in helpful conditions. With the bat too, he tailed away, managing just 38 in six innings.
The metronomic movement and zip off the pitch that had typified his bowling in Nottingham and at Lord’s had long since disappeared by The Oval. The ball floated through at amiable pace, and the batsmen were seldom troubled. Even under overcast skies, Bhuvneshwar, who was supposed to be India’s premier swing bowler, could not do much.
In Australia a few months later, he played just the one Test in Sydney. He took one for 168. With MS Dhoni having retired, and a new captain in charge, Bhuvneshwar did not play another Test for more than 18 months. He did not spend that time idle, though. With Virat Kohli, the captain, making clear his preference for bowlers with some pace, Bhuvneshwar knew that mere swing and control would not get him his place back.
He worked on his strength, both the legs and upper body. And by the time Sunrisers Hyderabad won the 2016 Indian Premier League, he was noticeably sharper in his new ball spells. Apart from swing and seam movement, he had a bouncer that could hurry the batsmen. And the added pace meant that he was no longer cannon fodder on placid pitches.
That season, he took 23 wickets, while conceding 7.42 an over. Back in the Test squad a few months later, he destroyed West Indies with match figures of six for 46 at Gros Islet. But on Indian pitches, memories of his earlier struggles seemed to influence selection. With Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav the preferred new-ball pairing, Bhuvneshwar had to settle for the odd cameo. He invariably made them count, though.
At Eden Gardens in 2016, he helped rout New Zealand with six for 76. A year later at the same venue, Sri Lanka — who had controlled much of the game — barely escaped with a draw after his second-innings heroics resulted in match figures of eight for 96. With the white ball too, he turned his fortunes around. Having been restricted to just one game, against the UAE, at the 2015 World Cup, he was an ever-present in India’s run to the Champions Trophy final in England last summer.
In the Twenty20 arena as well, he bided his time. After missing out on the World Twenty20 on home turf in 2016, he’s now an integral part of the squad. His five for 24 in the opening game of the ongoing series in South Africa illustrated just why, as he varied pace and length beautifully to flummox the batsmen.
The media uproar that followed his non-selection for the second Test against South Africa at Centurion said much about how valuable a cricketer he has become across formats. At both Newlands and The Wanderers, he batted with tenacity and nous, and bowled with all the skill he had shown in England nearly four years earlier. Only this time, the legs did not give way. Bhuvneshwar Mark II is here to stay.