Why is Bhuvneshwar Kumar not in the reckoning for Tests anymore?
After the Champions Trophy and the subsequent tour of the West Indies in 2017, it was quite clear that the Indian team management was looking at different bowling attacks for different formats - it helped that they had the alternatives, in the pace and spin departments. And Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India's top bowler in that Champions Trophy in terms of wickets and economy rate, was a big part of those plans, especially in limited-overs cricket, where Jasprit Bumrah and he were the preferred top two. Injuries, however, often forced him to miss Tests. Sometimes, he missed out because of conditions - Bhuvneshwar has always been at his best when it swings - too. That was until he travelled with India to South Africa for the Test series.
He played the first Test, in Cape Town, and picked up six wickets. But India lost. He was left out of the second game, which also India lost, but returned for the third, in Johannesburg. And on a treacherous surface, returned 3 for 44 and 1 for 39, looking unplayable at times - so much that he often missed the edges. He also scored 30 and 33 to take home the match award as India won by 63 runs.
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But 18 months on, his number of Test appearances remains stuck at 21. That Johannesburg game his last. His name doesn't even figure in India's squad for the upcoming Tests at home against South Africa. Not even once Bumrah was ruled out with injury, with Umesh Yadav getting the nod. How did things change so since Johannesburg?
On a high in South Africa, January 2018
That all-round effort in Johannesburg had given India victory on an extremely tough pitch to end the series on a high. With seven wickets in the three subsequent T20Is, Bhuvneshwar was on a high, among the Indian bowlers to watch out for when the team travelled to England later in the year.
Injured and out, July 2018
The T20Is and ODIs preceded the Tests in England and Bhuvneshwar's tour ended right there. While playing the third ODI in Leeds, he aggravated an old lower-back injury, an issue that had been troubling him since the IPL earlier in the year. Even before the IPL, Bhuvneshwar sat out of the Nidahas Trophy and later the one-off Test against Afghanistan at home to manage the injury. As a result, he flew back to India while the England Test series was on to undergo intense rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru and was out of action for two months before returning for the Asia Cup.
A few months later, Bhuvneshwar admitted that the break from international cricket in 2018 because of injuries "did affect" his rhythm.
Back in rhythm, September 2018
In August, he returned to the field for India A in a one-dayer against South Africa A, taking 3 for 33, including a first spell of 2 for 15 in six overs. Match fitness thus proven, he flew to the UAE for the Asia Cup in September and upon his reunion with Bumrah, bagged six wickets in five innings with an impressive economy rate of 4.19. Back in rhythm, and hungry enough, clearly.
Moving down the pecking order, remainder of 2018
As India started their preparations for the 2019 50-over World Cup, Bhuvneshwar played the home ODIs against West Indies, the away series in Australia, and was among the wickets in New Zealand and back at home again when Australia toured in March 2019.
But, along the way, he was rested for the home Tests against West Indies and though he was in the squad, he didn't play a Test in Australia after that, when India won 2-1. By now, Bumrah was leading India's pace attack in Tests too, the leaner and fitter Mohammed Shami was running in hard match after match - he has bowled more than any other Indian in Tests since January 2018 - and Umesh was fast becoming a top-choice fast bowler for home Tests, especially after his tally of 11 wickets in two games against West Indies. With Ishant Sharma already a Test mainstay, Bhuvneshwar was almost out of the reckoning altogether. Especially at home, it's important to remember that Bhuvneshwar has played only five Tests since 2016.
Another injury in England, World Cup 2019
A return to England brought with it another niggle for Bhuvneshwar. While playing the high-profile match against Pakistan, he bowled only 2.4 overs before leaving the field with a hamstring injury to be ruled out of the next few games of the tournament. India captain Virat Kohli had said that Bhuvneshwar was "going to be a very important factor for us" and the swing bowler lived up to the reputation with three wickets in the semi-final against New Zealand. But the batsmen's failure meant India's tournament ended there.
So why isn't he playing the South Africa Tests?
Bhuvneshwar toured the Caribbean recently for the ODIs and T20Is, after being left out of the Tests, and he picked a four-for in the second ODI, along with three T20I wickets in as many matches with a frugal economy rate of five runs per over from nine overs.
But, as has been the case with him recently, almost each time he recovers and gets back into rhythm, Bhuvneshwar picks up a fresh niggle. ESPNcricinfo understands that Bhuvneshwar was unavailable for selection for the recent T20I series against South Africa and the Tests that will commence on October 2, though there has been no official announcement to that effect.
Now, once fit, where does Bhuvneshwar stand?
Ravi Shastri, the India coach, has all but confirmed that Bhuvneshwar is only an ODI option going forward. Speaking to Hindustan Times on the problem of plenty in the pace department, he said, "There is Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma. How you look after each one of them is very important. Then we have Umesh Yadav, and Navdeep Saini is in the line for Tests. As far as white-ball cricket is concerned, you have Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Khaleel Ahmed in the wings. You got Deepak Chahar who has done so well."
But, fitness permitting, Bhuvneshwar will hope he is at least in the plans for the T20 World Cup next year in Australia. And, of course, Tests where the ball is expected to swing.