T20 cricket is perhaps the most misleadingly sold sport of all. The action is crunched into such a small time frame that to really follow it as a spectator, you need to concentrate fiercely. However, it is marketed almost as though it were a carnival. The cheerleaders, the loud music, the spot interviews, the incessant commentary, all the extracurricular activities prevent you from watching what is really happening.
In this IPL, a 17-year-old with no prior experience of playing official T20 cricket, has debuted in this atmosphere and has bowled offspin – an art modern limited-overs cricket is threatening to kill – for just 7.09 an over in the league stage. Just old-fashioned offspin: no doosras, no carrom balls. Harbhajan Singh is the only other specialist offspinner who gets to play regularly. Washington Sundar had bowled 14 of his 22 overs inside the Powerplay in the league stage. Among spinners, only Sunil Narine – with vast experience and variations at his disposal – had done it more often.
Because Sundar had taken just five wickets in the league matches, and because he doesn’t turn the ball both ways, he mostly flew under the radar. Until he took three wickets in the qualifier, the only curiosity had been around his name, which his father gave him to honour his own guardian, Mr Washington, who would buy him bats and pay his fees whenever needed. Sundar’s father was a cricketer himself who made it to Ranji probables but never to the main squad.
Nobody remembered Sundar’s overs before the qualifier because not much happened in them. He was a lot like Samuel Badree used to be, just inconspicuously bowling uneventful overs at the start of an innings – this season even Badree took a hat-trick. However, these inconspicuous uneventful overs pack in a lot of action, cat-and-mouse play, bluffs and double-bluffs. It needs someone who has been through it to describe this action, because the paraphernalia around T20 cricket rarely lets you get anywhere close to it as a spectator.
Sundar is just the man for it, and ESPNcricinfo met him before the qualifier. He has clarity of thought, and expresses it without platitudes of courage, attitude, intent and suchlike. He has bowled 22 balls to David Warner just for 24 runs, 14 balls to Shikhar Dhawan for 14, 10 balls to Ishan Kishan for 11, five balls to Virat Kohli for three, four balls to Jos Buttler for one, and 11 balls to Karun Nair for 14. He makes me repeat these numbers because he is not aware of them. He is clearly proud of them.
“It is challenging to be an offspinner,” he says. “Even in ODIs, with five fielders inside the circle, it is not easy. Out of every seven-eight batsmen, you will see at least five right-handers.” In limited-overs cricket, offspinners are clearly at the bottom of the food chain. There are restrictions on the field, and the bats are so heavy that mis-hits clear fielders, so beating batsmen in the air is not enough anymore. You need mystery, you need balls that will misbehave off the pitch, which on flat surfaces for limited-overs cricket happens only for legspinners. Left-arm orthodox bowlers still have the advantage of taking the ball away from a majority of batsmen. Offspinners have nothing going for them. Why, even R Ashwin, the No. 2 bowler in Tests whom Sundar replaced at the last moment for Rising Pune Supergiant, has not been able to complete his allotment in 12 of his last 24 T20 matches.
In this offspinner-unfriendly world, on April 17, at the Bengaluru airport, coach Stephen Fleming told Sundar to stay prepared. He was going to play the next match, at home on April 22, against Sunrisers Hyderabad because they had three left-hand batsmen in David Warner, Shikhar Dhawan and Yuvraj Singh. Fleming didn’t need to tell him he was to open. “Because they open with two left-handers, obviously I should be opening the bowling,” he says.
Sundar was happy he was starting his T20 career bowling to David Warner, with only two fielders inside the circle, and no doosras in his bag. “I prefer the new ball,” he says. “I prefer bowling even in the slog overs. I have bowled a lot in the slog overs. I have got good yorkers. I prefer bowling in whatever situation. It is challenging. It gives you an opportunity to do good for your team. To contribute as much as possible for your team.”
There is something to be said for how the Pune management has managed young talent. The thinking is clear, the communication is made well in advance, and the youngsters feel at home. Hrishikesh Kanitkar, member of the coaching staff at Pune and the coach of Tamil Nadu, recommended Sundar as the replacement for Ashwin, based mainly on his economy rate of 3.93 in his debut List-A season during which his state side won both the domestic 50-over tournaments. Sundar refers to his IPL coach and captain as Flem and Smudge; it takes years to get rid of the “sir” and “bhai” for youngsters in Indian dressing rooms.
So Sundar sat with analyst A Prasanna to figure out what the go-to shots and release shots were for the batsmen he was going to bowl to. He realised there wasn’t much to go by. “He hits everywhere,” Sundar says of Warner. “If you bowl up, he will hit you over yourself. He has switch-hits, he has sweeps, he goes over midwicket.”
There was enough time in the five days leading up to the game to be nervous and then attain clarity of plans. So the basic plan was made: “Back of a length, on the stumps, cramp him up. Even then he will switch-hit. It is really challenging with only two men inside the circle.”
The pressure from days of thinking evaporated once Sundar stepped onto the field. “Being clear about my plans has been working for me,” he says. “I am clear with what I should do. I am clear with what is my strength. I have a few plans for different batsmen for different situations.”
This is where things get difficult, though. It is not as easy as knowing your strength, deciding what you are going to bowl and trying to execute it. Batsmen such as Warner move around, both along the crease and up and down the pitch. In the first match, however, perhaps because this was the first time Warner was seeing Sundar bowl, he didn’t try his release shots. He waited for a mistake from the youngster, which he didn’t make. The only thing Warner tried to put Sundar off was the regulation sweep, but Sundar held his own.
Two wides aside, Sundar bowled seven balls to Warner that day for five singles and a leg bye, which played a role in Rising Pune’s win, but, come the reverse clash, Warner was ready. “In Pune I don’t think he tried too many shots against me,” Sundar says. “In Hyderabad, he tried everything. He tried switch-hits, he tried the sweep.”
So this is what happens when Warner tries to switch: “In this format you can’t decide what to bowl and go ahead with it. The batsman is going to move or step out or distract you. At the loading, you need to watch the batsmen’s feet pretty well and you have to change accordingly. At the loading, you will know if he is moving to switch-hit. At times, he mocks as well; he goes this way, but comes back to the original position.
“Either I have to bowl right at his shoes… on his shoes… wherever his shoes are. Or I should bowl in the area where he is not expecting me to bowl. That’s very important in T20 cricket. Even I am a batsman. If I am expecting to be bowled at in a particular area, and he is bowling in that area, I am definitely going to hit him. But if I am expecting to be bowled at in an area and I don’t get it, I can’t do much about it. Unless I get lucky.”
So at the loading he saw Warner move, on two different occasions, and he had a split second to pick one of the two options and then execute it. “At that point of time, what is he expecting?” Sundar thinks. “If it is outside the off stump, he will hit over third man. He might hit, even from outside leg, but if it is straight… So at that point of time he was expecting me to bowl on leg stump, on middle and leg, and on a length.”
“Not on the shoes?” I ask.
“If I get on the shoes, it is great, but it is difficult to bowl. You can end up bowling a full toss,” he says. “So he was expecting me to bowl length and on middle and leg. Because I had kept bowling that line. But I bowled outside off. He was not expecting it. So he couldn’t connect.”
In both of Sundar’s first two overs, Warner tried the switch-hit. On both occasions, Sundar stayed away from bowling in his usual spot or aiming at the toes. He went length and wide outside off. On one occasion he beat Warner, on the second he got an edge through to short third man. When Sundar bowled a third over inside the Powerplay, Warner finally connected with a sweep and then managed to disrupt Sundar’s length. Still, he had conceded only 19 in three overs inside the Powerplay, in defence of just 148. He had made Warner take risks just to reach a run a ball. Another match-winning contribution that didn’t make it to the highlights reel.
Sundar finally made it to the highlights in the qualifier, but he did nothing different. “In Vijay Hazare and Deodhar Trophy, I didn’t bowl to take wickets,” he says. “I just wanted to keep things tight. I knew that will make a major contribution to the team. Like if I bowl 10 overs for 30 to 35 runs, even if I am not getting a wicket, the bowlers at the other end might end up getting two-three wickets. That is what changes games. That is what I tried doing even here. Getting wickets, yes it will happen, but I shouldn’t be bowling to take wickets.”
An expert on host broadcaster Sony the other day said that the qualifier at the Wankhede Stadium would need “real” spinners, not a “Washington Sundar”. Another called him just a part-timer. On the surface, the experts had a point. The Wankhede boundaries are tiny; the ground featured scores of 230 and 223 only recently. Even Harbhajan was left out for the qualifier for the same reasons. You would need guile and magic and smokescreens and mind games, which Sundar didn’t possess. What Sundar did possess, though, was a spell of 4-0-26-1 in a successful defence of 160 against Mumbai Indians in a league match at the Wankhede. He counts bowling well there as his biggest achievement. “Even Dhoni bhai came up to me and said you bowled well.”
In that game, he had a right-hand opener to contend with in Jos Buttler. “Against right-handers, you need to be deadly [accurate] with your line and length,” Sundar says. “If you have variations, even if you get your length wrong, there will be some spin away or something. If you don’t have that, you should really be on the dot with your length and line, be clear with what you have to do and you should do that.”
To Buttler, it “was no room, push him back, don’t give him that flow [on the drive]”. To manage that without bowling wides, he often relies on drift so that the ball remains within the stumps even after turning. Also he is not worried about wides down the leg side because in T20 you don’t get pitches with so much turn, especially for the new ball. “Unless you really want to turn it.”
Just like with the iconic Tamil Nadu spinner that he replaced, Sundar’s offspin has benefitted from his batting. Sundar was a batsman all along who never bowled in the nets. In matches, though, he “didn’t like to just field for 50 overs or 20 overs or 90 overs”. He had to be involved, so he would keep asking for a bowl. As he grew older he realised if he wanted to stay involved in the game throughout, he had to improve as a bowler and not just turn up and roll his arm over. He started bowling 30 to 40 minutes at every net.
Sundar gives a lot of credit to M Venkataramana, his coach at the National Cricket Academy and Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. “The two years I was with him in NCA, that was the time when my bowling started to evolve,” he says. “He changed a couple of things for me, which worked in a big way. He is someone who played a very important role in me being here as an offspinner.”
Sundar almost didn’t make it. He was not part of the shortlist at the IPL auction despite having played in the 2016 Under-19 World Cup for India. Now that he has tasted early success, the batsmen are expected to do their homework. If he comes across Warner again, he will come across a new plan. As expected, at Wankhede on Tuesday, Mumbai threw right-hand batsmen at him, leaving Nitish Rana out for Ambati Rayudu.
The boundaries were just as tiny, he had a new challenge at hand, but Sundar remained deadly with his accuracy and clear with his thoughts. It’s just that, this time, he got the wickets too.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo