Praveen Kumar, born on October 2, 1986, is a good swing bowler who can trouble any batsman with movement despite his lack of pace. He has had his moments in international cricket, but injuries and poor form have prevented him from nailing a spot in the long run. Nishad Pai Vaidya profiles his career.
In the 2000s, Indian cricket witnessed a flood of talent from the smaller cities as young men broke the shackles to make a name at the highest level. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s emergence from Ranchi was a turning point, and over the years many cricketers from such remote centres followed suit. Praveen Kumar was a part of that young brigade and hailed from Meerut, a small city situated close to Delhi, which was more famous for its bat manufacturers that cricketers.
Born in a wrestling family on October 2, 1986, Praveen took keen interest in cricket and didn’t want to take up his family’s preferred sport. “They wanted me to wrestle. But I didn’t go,” Praveen told IBNlive. Instead he trained to become a fast-bowler who relied on swing, and a batsman who used his inherited wrestler’s strength to muscle the ball around. He made his debut for Uttar Pradesh Under-19s in 2002 and made it to the senior side in 2005-06. In his maiden season, Uttar Pradesh won the Ranji Trophy title and he was one of the stars. In eight matches, he picked up 41 wickets at an average of 23.97 with four fifers and one ten-wicket match haul. Not only that, he contributed with the bat as well with 368 runs at 28.30 with three fifties.
The growth continued next season, when he picked up 49 wickets in 11 matches at an average of 23.46. As a result, he toured with the India A team to Africa in 2007 and was first selected for the Indian side during the One-Day International (ODI) series against Pakistan in November 2007. He received his maiden cap during the 5th ODI at Jaipur and went wicketless for 50 runs as India lost the game. However, given Dhoni’s emphasis on youth and the need to back them, Praveen was on the flight to Australia for the Commonwealth Bank tri-series in early 2008.
His initial appearances were not very successful. But, Dhoni being someone who backs his players, Praveen was given more chances and he capitalized on them in style. India‘s last league encounter was against Sri Lanka and a win was a must for both sides to get through to the finals. In helpful conditions at Hobart, Praveen produced a spell that had the top-order in trouble. He struck when a partnership was building and showed what he could do when he extracted movement. His spell of four for 31 helped bowl Sri Lanka out for 179 and India chased the total with ease.
Praveen wasn’t done there. In the first final at Sydney, he struck early again to dismiss Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting. However, in the second final at Brisbane, his spell rattled the Australian top-order early which was in pursuit of 259. Moving the ball both ways, he kept them guessing. A batsman like Ponting, who was one of the greatest players of the pull shot was dismissed playing that stroke too early in both finals. The ball moved at a military medium pace, which would have the batsmen in two minds. India beat Australia in their own backyard and that was another shot in the arm for Dhoni’s captaincy. Praveen was the find of the finals.
In the years that followed, Praveen continued being the strike bowler for India with the new ball. In partnership with the experienced left-armers Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, Praveen formed a good one-day partnership which could trouble any top order. At their best, they could pick wickets in a heap. In the Asia Cup final in 2010, the trio effectively ended Sri Lanka’s hopes when they snared the top five in no time. Praveen opened the floodgates by getting Tillakaratne Dilshan to play a false stroke in the very first over. In the tri-series that followed, Praveen continued getting those early wickets against New Zealand.
At the same time, he showed that he could bat a bit too. Although a bit of a maverick in his approach, Praveen could deliver and showcase his batting talent. Built on pure strength, he focuses on sending the ball into the stands. It was that ability which saw him open the batting in a few domestic one-day fixtures. At the highest level, he didn’t have too many opportunities. During the home series against Australia in 2009, Harbhajan Singh and Praveen nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat when they took India to within five runs of victory. Both threw their bats around and milked runs when India were 201 for seven in the 40th over while chasing 293. It was quite entertaining as some of the stroke play was simply indescribable; Praveen finished unbeaten on 40 off 32 balls. Later in the same series, he scored his maiden fifty at Guwahati and constructed a good partnership with Ravindra Jadeja when the top-order had fallen early.
All the bowling performances and the odd good innings made Praveen an important part of the Indian one-day eleven. In the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, India did try a few youngsters, but had a more or less settled unit. Praveen was very much a part of that side, but picked up an injury on the tour to South Africa before the World Cup. As a result, he missed the tournament and only returned for India during the tour to the West Indies that followed.
While Praveen was only a part of the one-day squad, the Test call-up came in an unexpected manner as Zaheer Khan and Shanthakumaran Sreesanth were injured. Praveen capitalized on the opportunity and on his debut at Jamaica; he played a vital role in helping India secure the win. That performance put him on the flight to England.
India had a nightmarish tour to England that summer, but Praveen was one of the few who could return home with his head held high. The lack of pace may have been a worry, but the English conditions were always going to help his style. At Lord’s in the first Test, he picked up a fifer to show that he could perform in Tests. He got the initial breakthroughs at Trent Bridge as well, but India were on a slippery slope and there was very little he could do to stop it. As England were pushing for the series in the third Test at Edgbaston, Praveen only delayed the inevitable by smashing a few into the crowd and entertained the Indian section. He picked up an injury thereafter and couldn’t play the last Test. He finished with 15 wickets in three games at an average of 29.53, a respectable figure given the deluge of runs India conceded that summer.
Praveen did play a few ODI’s until the end of the year, but a broken rib ruled him out of the Test series in Australia in 2011-12. He returned for the tri-series that followed, but could not find success. A below-par Asia Cup campaign followed and he was axed thereafter. Since then he has been trying to get into the Indian side again. In the Indian Premier League (IPL), he has played crucial roles for Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kings XI Punjab.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Praveen’s statemate, has now taken his place in the Indian side as the swing bowler who gets early wickets. What has worked for Bhuvneshwar is sound temperament and a cool mind. However, Praveen seems to be fighting a few battles as his temperament has been questioned a few times. In 2008, he has allegedly assaulted a doctor in his hometown of Meerut. Then the nadir came in 2013, when an umpire described him as “mentally unfit” to play the game after he made physical contact with a batsman during the BCCI Corporate Trophy. Such things do not help an India player, especially someone who is trying to make a comeback.
Nevertheless, India can still harness his potential and he can deliver the goods on any surface. It is a matter of giving him confidence and backing him. But, breaking into the side may be a challenge for now.
In pictures: Praveen Kumar’s career