There is a whisper about fast bowlers of a certain age, and for medium-fast guys it comes sooner and is louder. It's the muffled choir of thousands of people wondering if they have lost their nip, lost the yard, lost that little bit of extra pace that allows them to be dangerous.
Ishant Sharma had it recently. After years of dominating batters worldwide, the collective wisdom about his recent drop in form is that he's just not getting the same energy off the wicket. Bowlers, seamers especially, are almost seen as this disposable asset at times. Used until they are no longer physically able to do their jobs, and then discarded for the next six-foot-five bloke who hits the deck hard.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar had these comments and thoughts aimed at him last year, when he had his worst IPL season, taking only six wickets in 11 matches. He has never been all that fast; that this slump came when he was over 30, and was coming off the back of a season-ending injury the year before led people to think his time at the top was over.
But in that very same year he did some of his best work ever in tormenting an England team on some incredibly flat pitches. On the 20th of March 2021, he bowled against England in a game that had 412 runs in it. Bhuvneshwar's four overs went for 15, and he dismissed Jason Roy and Jos Buttler. No other Indian bowler went for less than 8.50 runs per over.
Three weeks later he was in the IPL, and he went at an economy of over 11 in two of his first three matches, and nine in the last one before the Covid break. In the second part of the season he got back on top of his economy, but took only three wickets in six matches.
So you could make the leap to say he was over if you looked at Bhuvneshwar last season and only at his IPL form. Perhaps he was losing that little bit extra off the pitch and that was making him less potent.
But it's worth talking about why he was so good for years despite never being tall, quick or unconventional, which is generally what helps in T20. His primary skill is skill. That perfect wrist gave him a really good Test average. But it was an asset that translated better to white-ball cricket than it did for other similar bowlers like Vernon Philander and Mohammad Abbas. And one of the reasons is that Bhuvneshwar moves the ball so much more than most bowlers, and he does it in two directions.
Early on he's almost like a legspinner because most of his balls are on and around an off-stump line. But he can also miss off stump by two feet with an outswinger, and then swing it back to leg with an inswinger. That is not a usual cricket skill.
Most seam bowlers can only bowl an outswinger or an inswinger. Because their actions are made for that kind of delivery. Some can bowl both, but they only can master one. And there are bowlers who can deliver both but struggle to do it with the new white ball, as it gets away from them. Bhuvneshwar can swing in and out at will, with accuracy, with the shiniest of new balls.
This skill is important in T20 because when you're trying to smash him over the ring for a boundary, depending on his mood, a ball angled in at your off stump can hit leg or be around 50cm wider than off. That is a disturbing amount of lateral movement and very hard to line up.
That is a superpower. And he's been so good over the years that teams have changed how they play him early. They now try not to be dismissed by him. That is incredibly rare in T20, but Bhuvneshwar is a powerplay genius.
But he's also good at the death. Not Lasith Malinga or Jasprit Bumrah, but he's a consistently good death bowler, and the ball doesn't swing there. So he uses his incredible accuracy and cricket intelligence to stay a step ahead of everyone. He has a good slower ball, but it's not like he's Dwayne Bravo. And considering he has such a normal release and isn't that fast, it's incredible he has been able to have such a good career.
Bhuvneshwar has been one of the best bowlers in the history of the IPL, year after year. And he's well tested, he has bowled the most seam deliveries of anyone. And then when he slipped last season, people were too fast to suggest that he was on his way out.
It was a terrible year but Bhuvneshwar kept his economy in the IPL at 7.97, which is fine for most bowlers but high for him. His career T20 economy rate is 7.17, and this was his most expensive year. However, it was his average that stuck out most - he took those six wickets at 56, and he was the only seamer with over 200 deliveries who took fewer than ten wickets.
Of course he did this in the middle of the Sunrisers running into a brick wall on and off the field. So bad was his - and their - season, the franchise didn't retain him ahead of the auction. They perhaps assumed other teams would be wary of him as well, and they were right. Only Lucknow Super Giants really bid a decent amount, and he finally went to SRH for half as much as he had four years earlier. Now part of this was probably due to his age: older quicks are more worrying. But he had been one of the most bankable local seamers in the competition, and this was quite a haircut.
For instance, Umesh Yadav went for only half the money that Bhuvneshwar did, and was even overlooked in the first round of the auction. But last year he played no IPL games, and the year before he took no wickets in his two games and went at 12 runs per over. And his career numbers are nowhere near what Bhuvneshwar has achieved. But Umesh is fast, even when things have gone wrong for him, and though he hasn't mastered his T20 bowling consistently, he can whang down the ball. That is very easy to see and get excited about. What Bhuvneshwar does is far more subtle.
There also just aren't many bowlers like Bhuvneshwar who have been anywhere near as good, so what he does doesn't feel as repeatable. And we're regularly told that being so easy to predict is a problem for T20 bowlers. That you can be too accurate. It has never been a problem for Bhuvneshwar.
This year he's back to what you expect, averaging just over 30, but with an economy of 7.25. There's little doubt he's been one of the best seamers this year. And he has done this when his team has bowled incredibly well and also when all of them dropped off and he was on his own.
As sports fans we're obsessed with being the first to call it when someone is over, to say that their time is up. And with anyone not fast-fast, we're waiting for the slight drop that ends their effectiveness. Whether it was injury that caused the problem or not.
When a bowler is this talented with the ball and has a bowling brain of this calibre, it is always worth waiting a little bit longer. A bad season can hit anyone in T20, whisper it, but talent like this doesn't die overnight.