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Indian cricket has added ballast to its pace attack with two new finds - Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shami Ahmed. But will they be able to live up to expectations, asks Aabhas Sharma
At the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad four years ago, very few people were present to see a 19-year-old bowler dismiss Sachin Tendulkar for the first — and only — time for a duck in a Ranji Trophy match. The bowler went on to take five wickets in the first innings and scored 80 runs in the second innings of the match, the 2008-09 Ranji Trophy final, which his team (Uttar Pradesh) eventually lost by 243 runs.
Four years later, Bhuvneshwar Kumar finds himself in the same team as Tendulkar and probably will line up alongside him when India takes on Australia in the first Test starting on February 22 in Chennai.
Kumar is a Gurjar and was born in December 1990 in Kanpur. His family comes from a small village in UP’s Bulandshahr district and had little connection with sport. His father, a sub-inspector with UP police, barely paid any attention to his son’s cricketing career and his mother knew nothing about cricket. His father had a transferable job, so the family made Meerut their base when Kumar was still a toddler.
It was his sister Rekha who saw his passion for cricket. “It was I who supported him through school and enrolled him at the Victoria Park Cricket Academy,” says Rekha. Now married and living in Delhi, Rekha recalls how Kumar’s life always revolved around cricket. One of his early jobs as a trainee at the academy was to push the roller on the pitch at Meerut’s Bhamashah stadium. In fact, he even missed her wedding because of cricket. “He was away playing and I missed him but that’s Bhuvi. Nothing comes between him and his cricket,” she says. When Kumar made his debut for India in the T20 game against Pakistan in Bangalore in December last year, Rekha knew that her brother’s hard work had finally started to pay off.
The other person who has seen Kumar’s rise from when he was just 10 years old is his first coach: Suresh Rastogi. “He never had a fast bowler’s built. Even now he isn’t muscular and doesn’t look like a menacing bowler,” says Rastogi. But the good thing about Kumar, Rastogi adds, is that he is aware of his limitations and strengths, and works on them.
Kumar’s biggest asset is swing, says Rastogi, who feels the former is one of the few bowlers in India too have both a deadly in-swinger and an out-swinger in their quiver. “The first time I saw him, I thought he had talent but he was keen to bowl, like most youngsters, at express pace,” says Rastogi. But the faster Kumar tried to bowl, the more wayward he became. So Rastogi, along with former UP wicket-keeper Vipin Vats, sat Kumar down before he made his Ranji debut for UP in 2008 and told him that he was a natural swing bowler and that’s what he should work on.
It was in 2008 that Kumar actually came to the limelight. Playing for the UP team, which included bowlers like R P Singh and Pravin Kumar, he took 35 wickets in the season and cemented his place. In 2012, he was among the highest wicket-takers in domestic cricket and also scored a century in a Duleep Trophy match. He has taken 149 first-class wickets in 46 matches at an average of 26.02.
Coach Rastogi says that Kumar really looks up to his senior Pravin Kumar. “He always said that Pravin is his inspiration and wanted to be like him. But Bhuvi is a better batsman and, I feel, better at swinging the ball as well.” One could see that in the ODIs and T20s against Pakistan, when Kumar’s swing troubled the batsman a lot. He even took a wicket with the first ball he bowled in the Mohali ODI.
Rastogi is confident that his ward will be a success in the long form of the game as well. “As long as he sticks to what he knows best, he will be revelation as a fast bowler in Test matches,” he says. And Kumar seems to feel the same way. After he was selected for the series against Australia, Kumar said that he was aware that swing and seam were his main strengths and he intended to build on them.
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The other fast bowler to have burst on the scene in the last two months is Shami Ahmed. However, Ahmed’s story is as different from Kumar’s as is his bowling style. If Kumar is all about swing, Ahmed is raw pace — well not “express” but quick indeed by Indian standards. Moreover, he can swing the ball too.
Ahmed comes from a small village near Moradabad in UP. His father was the village sarpanch and his three other brothers too played cricket at the district level. But it was Shami who showed spark. His first coach, Badruddin Siddiqui, told his father that if his son wanted to make a career in cricket, he should move to Kolkata. “I wasn’t too happy about it but told him that he has to play for India,” recalls Tousifuddin Ahmed. And so at the age of 13, Ahmed left his village for the eastern metropolis and has lived there ever since. His father’s hopes came good when Ahmed made his debut for India on January 6, 2013, in the third ODI against Pakistan.
Ahmed was lucky in that he made his first class debut in 2010 under the leadership of Sourav Ganguly, arguably India’s finest cricket captain. Ganguly, who had by then retired from international cricket and was playing for Bengal, took Ahmed under his wing. Ahmed was also picked for the city IPL franchise Kolkata Knight Riders, where he worked with Pakistani fast-bowling legend Wasim Akram who was the bowling consultant of the team.
Ahmed is the first Indian bowler to bowl four maiden overs in his debut match. He has impressed with his pace as well as his accuracy, a trait that W V Raman, his coach at the Bengal team, really admires. Raman, a former India opener, says that Ahmed can go a long way if he is handled the right way. “A lot of bowlers have shown promise in the last few years but didn’t sustain it. The key with Ahmed will be how he is handled,” says 47-year-old Raman who has seen Ahmed bowl on flat tracks as well as bouncy ones. “He is a confident bowler and always backs himself to take wickets,” Raman adds.
Ahmed has played in five ODIs so far and taken only four wickets but has been economical in his spells and looked sharp. He is still a newbie in first class cricket, where he has taken 65 wickets in 15 matches at an average of 24.67. “It’s still early days for Ahmed but he certainly has the potential to have a long career at the international level,” says Raman.
Ahmed and Kumar have made promising starts. But one shouldn’t forget that both of them got a chance because Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron are on the sidelines with injuries. Will they be able to hold on to their place in the team when these two are back? India has seen many such false dawns in the past. Many fast bowlers in the past have made a good first impression but failed to capitalise on it. It’s early days yet and it will be interesting to see if Kumar and Ahmed can become the sultans of swing for India.
FLASH IN THE PAN