India's premier swing bowler's class with the bat is starting to make respected observers sit up and take notice, says Nigel Henderson.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar stepped on to the back foot and with a pendulum swing of the bat sent the ball scudding through the gap in the covers and to the boundary. Keshav Maharaj, the South Africa left-arm spinner, could only watch in admiration – an admiration shared by commentator Michael Holding who, in recognising that placement had played a part in the successful completion of the stroke, along with an understanding that he did not need to hit the ball too hard, marked it out as something not customarily expected from a No 9. "That's the shot of a top-order batsman," purred Holding.
In the longer-term it was one that had no bearing on the outcome of the first Test between the two nations in Cape Town, but in providing important support for the underrated batting of Ravi Ashwin at the other end and arresting for a while a second-innings slide that looked terminal, he was reprising his efforts of a first innings in which he had helped Hardik Pandya add 91 at a time when India, at 92 for seven, looked likely to concede a hefty deficit.
As the tourists finished 73 runs short of their target in a Test that lasted only three days in total, Kumar ended on a creditable 13 not out on a day when 18 wickets had fallen. Out only once, he had outscored the top five in a much-vaunted Indian batting order.
If Ravi Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin have earned the label of all-rounders, was this not evidence that another in their dressing-room should be afforded that epithet?
Kumar has always been a tidy batsman, a reality better appreciated in India than elsewhere in the world: shortly before making his international debut, he hit 128 in a Duleep Trophy semi-final at No 8. In his first Test, against Australia in Chennai, he supported MS Dhoni, who scored a double century, in a ninth-wicket stand of 140.
That he had any ability with the willow became apparent to cricket-watchers in the wider world during the Test against England at Trent Bridge in 2014 but even then just how proficient he had become was probably overlooked: while he scored a fifty in each innings, this was a game played on as lifeless a 22 yards as you will find: Mohamed Shami got his only Test half-century in the same match and Jimmy Anderson hit a career-best 81. Kumar, at least, went on to add another in the victory that followed for India at Lord's.
However, it was a performance in a one-day international late last year that hinted that he not only had the shots of a batsman who should appear higher in the order, but that his temperament would certainly be suited to the role.
India had dominated the Test series in Sri Lanka, winning 3-0, and were looking likely to do the same in the one-day matches. They had romped to a nine-wicket victory in the first game in just 28 overs and when the hosts could manage only 236 in their 50 overs in Pallekele four days later, a second triumph seemed nailed on, especially when openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan raced to 109 in barely 16 overs. Whether it was complacency – Virat Kohli promoted KL Rahul and Kedhar Yadhav above him – or the fact that it was India's first proper sighting of Sri Lanka's mystery spinner Akila Dananjaya, is unclear, but within the space of little more than six overs, Dananjaya's sorcery had reduced his shellshocked opponents to 131 for seven, Rohit, Rahul, Yadhav, Pandya, Axir Patel and Kohli himself all bewitched, bedazzled and bewildered; the left-arm, much more orthodox Milinda Siriwardana had meantime snared Shikhar.
Only Dhoni and Bhuveneshwar Kumar stood between India and utter humiliation and Kumar had surely had to rush to get his pads on. Dananjaya, with figures of 5.5-0-30-6, had four more overs in which to weave his web, and tested Kumar with a googly first ball, the tailender playing back and with a lack of panic his more illustrious team-mates had failed to display. Within ten balls, nine of which he required to get off the mark, the Indian bowler had been exposed to Dananjaya's full repertoire. Only the leg-break ripped past his defensive stroke.
In five overs, Kumar added 19 with his highly-experienced partner, one who had surely seen it all in his 297 previous ODIs and India passed 150. With 23 overs to go and 87 required, the run-rate was not testing but keeping wickets intact was vital. If the pair thought about trying to see off Dananjaya, who now had two overs left to bowl, captain Upul Tharanga was a step ahead, hauling him out of the attack. It had become a game of cat and mouse and Sri Lanka were keeping their claws sheathed.
Lasith Malinga, generally out of sorts, and the lively Dismuntha Chameera took up the attack but Malinga's line was so poor he ended up bowling a nine-ball over. Kumar tried to run down the pitch to turn Malinga's yorker into something easier to deal with but otherwise was a model of patience, going 17 balls without scoring at one point, and dealing in singles when he did. Dhoni was little more expansive, even surviving when a ball from Fernando hit his stumps without disturbing the bails, but with the run-rate increasing to five an over by the end of the 37th, Kumar took it upon himself to up the ante, slog sweeping Siriwardana for a sweetly-struck six.
When Dananjaya was restored to the attack for the 40th over, he cut, then pulled the spinner for consecutive fours, overtaking the India wicketkeeper in the process. Two overs later, he did the same to Chameera, meanwhile rotating the strike superbly with his partner. With one last throw of Dananjaya's dice, he went to a first ODI fifty and six balls later, the match was won. Kumar had played the senior role in a record eighth-wicket stand.
Yet it was master chaser Dhoni who took most of the headlines, being praised for marshalling India to their target with "sheer force of will and fiendish common sense". Those descriptions could just as easily have been applied to Kumar – and you should also add "intelligence" which, combined with serious cricketing ability, makes a heady brew. "I had a plan against him," Kumar said afterwards. "Basically he is an off spinner but he was also bowling leg spinners and googlies. When I went in I just wanted to play him as someone who bowls googlies. Whatever wickets he was taking were on the googly, so my plan was to counter his incoming deliveries. Initially it was a bit difficult to read him from the hand but later on, when I had played him for ten to 15 balls, I could read his variations."
If more evidence is needed that he is far more than the stereotypical intellectually-challenged fast bowler, look back at comments of his from that 2014 tour of England. Having picked up six wickets at Lord's to take his place on the honours board, he revealed that his batting form at Trent Bridge had informed his bowling. "If you think like a batsman you have the upper hand over the person you are bowling to," he said. "Having batted for long hours I know where the batsman will find it difficult to play the ball. I can anticipate what is going on in his mind and plan the next ball accordingly."
Shortly before the end of that match-winning partnership in Sri Lanka, one correspondent to the Cricinfo live commentary lamented: "Bhuve's batting talent is unreported, unrecognised."
In three of the four ODIs in which he has batted since, he has scores of 32 not out, from 30 balls, 20 from 33 balls and 26 from 15, in two cases his runs helping to cement victories over Australia. With his performances at Newlands to add to those, it is probable that if he continues on his present path, South Africa's bowlers may have to join Holding in sitting up and really taking notice.