It must be a big thing when the one thing your childhood coach remembers most vividly of all your achievements over the years is the fact that you always wear a helmet while riding a bike. It also gives an indication of the path the conversation is likely to take when discipline becomes a recurring motif of your professional growth over more than a decade.
On both fronts, Bhuvneshwar Kumar is clearly an oddity in Meerut, where traffic, like in any city in western Uttar Pradesh, is often a nightmare. There is an inherent machismo, bravado and in-your-face assertiveness that can scare the uninitiated. Chaos is a part of life around here. And yet, there are times when the chaos produces an icon who breaks stereotypes and stands out for being the antithesis of what he should have been.
The lanky seamer, one of India’s biggest hopes going into the World Cup, is known best for his nagging line and disciplined length that have troubled the best batsmen worldwide. A visit to Victoria Park, where he honed those skills, makes it abundantly clear that it is not just a part of his game but his entire persona, both on and off the field.
The 29-year old is such a contradiction to the system around him – “the only one to still wear a helmet whenever he comes home and stop at traffic signals at all times” – that even his best friends and childhood coaches admit he could be a case study. Or maybe not. The aggression, they insist, is there all right; it’s just the outlet that is different to what is the norm.
“Wo hamesha se aisa hi tha (He has always been like this). Simple, sober, reed-thin and silent, you won’t ever realise his competitiveness. I was surprised when he first said he wanted to be a fast bowler. But there is a stubbornness in him, a toughness that makes him special,” says Sanjay Rastogi, the man who first took Bhuvneshwar under his wing 15 years ago at Victoria Park and continues to guide him whenever needed.
It is a stubbornness that is only seen by those who happen to cross Bhuvneshwar – Bhuvi to everyone – on the field. And even they realise it only after it is over. “Ek khundak hai usme, haar bardasht nahi hai (He has one fault; he cannot take defeat).Whenever he comes on break, even if we play football other than cricket for fun, he cannot take defeat. But we have never seen his competitive spirit come out by way of sledging or abuses,” he adds.
“Bhuvi doesn’t abuse,” declares his best friend and senior through all age-group cricket over the years, Gaurav Goel. The 31 year old reveals how his childhood friend’s emotional stability has been the secret to his success.
“He is still the same Bhuvi. He is an introvert; he will never let anyone know what he thinks. He gets affected by things but never lets that affect his game. And that stability is a big reason for his success. He always says, ‘If you stay stable at big moments, you can concentrate and perform better – both in life and on field,’” Goel says.
It is visible onfield as well. Barring M. S. Dhoni, Bhuvneshwar clearly would qualify as being the least expressive during a game regardless of the situation or intensity. Through the current edition of the Indian Premier League, he had the added responsibility of leading Sunrisers Hyderabad for a large part, but regardless of the result, there was rarely an occasion when one saw him get worked up.
That doesn’t make him a robot, though. Bhuvneshwar likes dressing according to the latest trends, loves his coffee, samosas and snooker, is a prankster and a master of subtle one-liners, and draws his peace and strength from the Bhagvad Gita. “We asked him how he manages to keep away frustration. He simply said, ‘Gita khol ke padhne baith jata hun.’ We wonder about the Indian dressing room being aggressive and he only smiles, ‘Sab badhiya hai.’ Perhaps he understands there is no point in thinking about it either. Even if he is hurt by someone, he wouldn’t react, simply start keeping his distance,” they say.
It all contrasts sharply with Praveen Kumar, the original swinger of the ball from these lands and a cricketing icon from the city that is famous throughout the cricketing world for its sporting good and manufacturing units. Praveen, who fits the template of a typical Merathiya – brash, aggressive, outspoken – is one of Bhuvneshwar’s idols – the other is Glenn McGrath – and the who set him up to become a fast bowler in a way. The two may be similar in their skills, but that’s all that they have in common.
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“Mohammad Kaif wanted a fast bowling all-rounder for UP (Uttar Pradesh) back then and Bhuvi was on the radar after impressive performances at the under-19 level. I remember backing him for the role and he has never disappointed. He began with a prodigious inswing but then worked on his outswing as well. It takes a lot of hard work to be good at both and I have seen him put in the hours and effort to do so,” Praveen is all praise, insisting there was an incredible amount of hard work behind Bhuvneshwar’s success.
World Cup a long way off
With the World Cup looming, Bhuvneshwar’s form has been under scrutiny, but those who know him are not worried. “Batsmen have become cautious against him and that has resulted in fewer wickets. But he still has the maximum dot balls in the IPL and will do much better in England,” Rastogi insists.
The past bears him out. Before the 2014 England tour, he had sought out Praveen, who says he advised him to “alter his length and target a foot ahead of what is considered good in Indian conditions in Tests.” It paid off. Bhuvneshwar was one of the saving graces for India then, picking up 19 wickets at 26.63 and getting his name on the Lord’s honour board.
He continues to discuss his bowling with Rastogi. “We spoke a few days ago and I told him, ‘When you bowl yorker length just outside off stump, the batsmen is cramped for space and can only take a chance on the leg side. But you pull up the third-man fielder in the slog overs. If you keep him and the point fielder deep, the chances of conceding a boundary will be less. At best he will manage a single,’” he says.
Others around him do their bit to give the extra impetus, including preparing pitches as per his requirement with all kinds of balls to practice before every tour.
Not that there have not been difficult periods. Never the fastest in the ranks, Bhuvneshwar was worried about losing his ability to swing the ball as well a couple of years ago. “He was getting affected by criticism of performing below expectations even though no one bothered that he was constantly bowling on dead Indian pitches in 44 degrees. He used to come here every day back then, we tried changing his grip a little and it worked,” Rastogi reveals.
Close to perfection
The unanimous verdict is that Bhuvi is as close to perfect as one can be. “He doesn’t have any bad habits. He doesn’t brag about his achievements. He is always helpful. He treats everyone equally. Honestly, we are ourselves desperate to find a flaw in his character,” says a laughing Madhav Pratap Singh, Bhuvi’s junior and left-arm spinner who, interestingly, started off as a fast bowler inspired by him.
He even keeps track of UP’s domestic performances. “Bhuvi saw the entire 2018-19 Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy final on his phone and called up to say Purnank Tyagi (who took seven wickets) must be pushed for the Ranji Trophy. How many India stars actually watch a domestic under-19 game?” asks Rastogi.
Bhuvneshwar’s father Kiran Pal Singh and mother Indresh with their son’s trophies at their home in Meerut. – Sandeep Saxena
Goel has his own favourite anecdotes. “In an under-19 game against MP (Madhya Pradesh) in Indore, they needed 20 runs in two overs with two wickets in hand. I was the captain, bowled the penultimate over and ended up conceding 15. But Bhuvi told me to relax, gave away three runs and picked both wickets and we won by 1 run.
“Another time, during a district-level match against Lucknow, the opposition needed 49 runs in 10 overs with six wickets remaining and everyone was resigned to defeat. He insisted on bowling, took five of the remaining wickets in three overs and we won by 22-23 runs. This was routine at every level of competition.”
Goel, who incidentally was pursuing an MBA degree in Bangalore when Bhuvneshwar made his international debut in the Twenty20 International in 2012 against Pakistan in that city, tries to explain further. “I was more excited than him before that game. We were together till late night and I asked him if he was not nervous. He simply said he was confident of his skills and the rest was up to luck. Being tense never helped anyone.
“We talk a lot about mindsets. There might be players as talented as Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma but the difference is how you absorb pressure.”
At Victoria Park, PK and Bhuvi are never spoken of separately. “They are the reason you see almost 100 kids here now. When we started 20 years back, there were not more than 15-20 kids. These boys cut grass, lifted soil, rolled, watered and prepared the pitch themselves,” Rastogi says, adding that having PK around was a big advantage.
Praveen is modest in taking credit when told about encouraging Bhuvi to bowl with the new ball during Ranji Trophy games. “That happened, yes. But there was R. P. Singh, Piyush Chawla and Shalabh Srivastava, too. We had the best attack ever for UP and there was healthy competition to take wickets. Yes, there was extra affection for Bhuvi because he is from the same city and I have seen him grow here. But he has grown because of his own talent and hardwork,” Praveen says.
Famous in anonymity
Ten minutes away, his simple, two-storey house is devoid of any indication that it belongs to one of the city’s biggest stars. The anonymity doesn’t stop people from visiting it. “Even kids who have grown up around here and know us well refer to this as Bhuvi’s house now,” laughs his mother Indresh.
His father Kiran Pal Singh adds, “Every day at least three-four youngsters stop while passing through and point out Bhuvi ka ghar. Baap ke naam se sab bachhe jane jate hain. Kismatwale hote hain wo jo apne bachhe ke naam se jane jate hain (All children are known by their fathers’ names. Fortunate are those who are known by their children’s achievements).”
Some of his family details are well-known – how his sister Rekha, seven years the elder, took the 13 year old to Kailash Prakash Stadium for trials at the state academy but was turned away because admissions were over, then persisted and got through to Rastogi and would ferry her kid brother every day.
What is not so well-known is that he missed her marriage in 2009 because it clashed with a local tournament in Allahabad that would kickstart his selection to the UP team and put him on the fast track to success. That the only reason his parents encouraged sports was to ensure “he stayed away from bad elements at an age when you are most impressionable, specially in these parts.” Or that his national call-up coincided with the demise of his grandmother.
“Simple, sober, reed-thin and silent, you won’t ever realise his competitiveness. I was surprised when he first said he wanted to be a fast bowler. But there is a stubbornness in him, a toughness that makes him special,” says Sanjay Rastogi (right), the man who first took Bhuvneshwar under his wing 15 years ago. – Sandeep Saxena
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It is a modest house by modern luxury standards. His own room is devoid of any signs of his cricketing achievements. His parents are yet to see him play in India colours at a stadium. “We had planned last year, everything was done and we had to leave on July 26. On 23rd he called to say he was coming back with a back injury. We have seen IPL games at Pune and Hyderbad. Wahan anand to bahut aata hai, shor hota hai – par actual match nahi dikhai deta (We get a lot of pleasure there; there’s a lot of noise – but we get to watch the actual match),” his father says matter-of-factly.
The son is not too different from the player. He loves his kadhi chawal, urad ki daal and sarson ka saag with little spice and feasts on buttermilk. He loves his video games – “He says it helps his concentration levels” – as much as a round of carrom with family.
As one prepares to leave, however, the lingering image of Bhuvneshwar is none of the ones painted by his friends or even his family. It is a photograph that holds place of pride, in the small cabinet of trophies in his living room, of Bhuvi with his nephew. The photograph eclipses some of his biggest achievements – including the BCCI Junior Player of the Year 2007-08 and Player of the Year 2013-14 – that are relegated to the background.
It is an image that represents everything he is – calm, content, undemanding. Rastogi says, “We do not have artistic, thinking players here but strong-willed, emotional ones. We cannot be defensive, we can only survive with aggression. Bhuvi is an exception but also typical – he is the best amalgamation of both worlds.”