11 May, 2013 started as just another day in the Indian Premier League (IPL) for Sandeep Sharma. It was matchday in Mohali with Kings XI Punjab taking on Sunrisers Hyderabad in a virtual knockout clash. Sandeep set off early for the practice session. However, it didn’t have anything to do with the match. He was part of the reserves who routinely practiced at the Punjab Cricket Association Ground early on matchdays before the first team squad arrived.
The counter had ticked to 58 matches in the league and ten for Kings XI Punjab and Sandeep’s hopes of playing in the league had started evaporating. He wasn’t even warming the bench half of the time.
The script wasn’t moving on expected lines. However, the intensity of practice did not relent. It was the same that day.
Sandeep was riding a crest in the U-19 and domestic arena. He had finished as joint-highest wicket-taker (12) in India’s 2012 U-19 World Cup-winning campaign, which included four wickets in the final against Australia. The momentum had carried into the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy, where he had gobbled up the most wickets for Punjab and finished the season as the fifth-highest wicket-taker overall with 42 scalps from 9 matches at 19.41 including three five-fors and one 10-fer.
The good form continued in the Vijay Hazare Trophy where he again finished as highest wicket-taker for Punjab with 10 wickets from six matches at 20.60.
These impressive performances brought two IPL offers onto the table for the Punjab pacer – from Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab. Sandeep chose his home side. The dream had started to take wings.
“When I joined the KXIP camp on the first day, obviously everything was new, there were international players and we had grown up watching these stars so I was just observing them,” Sandeep recalls. “My first few days went in understanding how this all works. How the players work and train. But I was just 18 and wasn’t thinking much about most things. I was like, ‘I am getting this opportunity to play this league, so give your 100 percent’. I was enjoying the camps and training sessions.”
For a squad packed with pacers like Praveen Kumar, Azhar Mahmood, Ryan Harris, the promising Parvinder Awana (who had impressed the previous season), and Manpreet Gony, you would expect chances to be few and far. However, Sandeep’s prolific form had raised expectations.
“When I joined the team, I thought that I will play matches because my domestic season was really good at that time but it didn’t happen,” Sandeep recalls. ” During those times, there were a lot of players in the squad, around 30-35, and the team used to leave the reserves behind in the hotels while traveling for the matches because it wasn’t feasible to carry each one of them. I was one of them. I was in the hotel and after 6-7 matches, it started creeping into my mind that ‘now I won’t get the opportunity’.”
The IPL, over the years, has witnessed many contrasting stories – there have been players who haven’t got a single opportunity in the league, there have been players who have taken years to break into the first-team squad and there have been stories of surprisingly fast-tracked debuts as well.
Amidst this maelstrom of emotions, there is every chance that a youngster’s mind oscillates between hope, frustration, and despair. However, it wasn’t the case with Sandeep.
“During those times the captain and coaches couldn’t stay in touch with everyone because it was such a fast-paced tournament. Now the scenario has changed, there are 20-25 players so communication is easy but it wasn’t a case at that time, and it was difficult to communicate with each player,” Sandeep says.
“I was really young at that time and these things (frustrations) didn’t even enter the mind.
“My mantra was ‘do your hard work and enjoy your game’. We reserves used to go to practice and enjoyed it a lot.
“But my mindset was positive and I kept working and training hard.”
That optimistic mindset would prove to be crucial in the long run.
The hard day’s work had just ended, the KXIP vs SRH match was just one and a half hours away from the start. Sandeep had wrapped up his practice and just returned to the dressing room. Little did he know that his fortunes were about to take an AB de Villiers-esque 360-degree turn. With rain around and the pitch looking helpful for pacers, the KXIP management decided to hand Sandeep his debut.
At 6.30 pm, coach Darren Lehmann entered the dressing room and broke the news to Sandeep.
“You are going to play.”
“Mai shocked tha, kyu ke mai mentally prepared nahi tha. Fir mai baitha and 5-10 minute maine deep breathing ki. Aur fir mujhe realisation huaa ki jis cheez ke liye mai wait kar raha tha wo moment aa gayi hai. (I was shocked, because I wasn’t mentally ready. Then I sat down and took deep breaths for 5-10 mins. After that, finally, the realisation struck that the moment I had been waiting for had arrived).”
Things returned to normal in the next one-and-half hours. There was no formulation of strategies or deep thinking, Sandeep was just going with the flow.
“We did warm-ups and team routine and then individual routine. And after all this, you don’t think much, just go with the flow. When you are 17-18 you don’t think strategies you do that when you are 22-23. Today I think about strategies. But at that time it was just ‘go and play’.”
In a few minutes, the IPL was about to unleash yet another raw talent from the copious reserves of the country.
Kings XI Punjab captain Adam Gilchrist opted to field in the do-or-die match. Sandeep’s nerves, which were calm during the warm-ups, had started to flare up just before the toss.
This is when the captain’s words played a calming influence.
“When I reached the ground, that pressure was on me. Then Gilchrist came to me and said, ‘Don’t feel the pressure. This is what you wanted to play. This is what you live for. Just express yourself, don’t think too much, and enjoy the game. This is how you achieve successes.”
“And that is how I went.”
Punjab had started off well and restricted SRH to 29/1 in five overs before Gilchrist handed the ball to Sandeep to bowl the last over of the Powerplay.
“Just enjoy your bowling, nothing much,” was the message from the captain.
The moment of reckoning had arrived.
“When I got the ball, I was under pressure and nervous as well. I was just thinking ki meri pehli kuch balls acchi nikal jaaye bas (My first few balls should go well). After that when the nerves settle down, you feel a bit relaxed and then it becomes a bit easy.”
Sandeep ran in to bowl the first ball of his IPL career but it didn’t go according to the plan. The first one was a half-volley outside off and was caressed through extra cover for four by his U-19 teammate Hanuma Vihari.
The next ball was defended by Vihari. Sandeep’s mindset had, however, had begun to change.
“I was not thinking much, I just told myself, ‘runs save karne ke liye nahi dekhna hai, ab wicket lene ke liye hi dekhna hai‘ (I should not be looking to save runs, I should be going for wickets).”
The very next ball brought him his maiden wicket. It wasn’t the best of deliveries though. It was a touch wide and short, Vihari cut it straight to David Miller at point.
There were no exuberant celebrations. A warm handshake from Gilly brought out an innocent smile on Sandeep’s face.
There were two more wickets added to his kitty in the next over: SRH Captain Cameron White trapped in front and Biplab Samantray watching his off stump go cartwheeling off the very next ball.
“Both were inswingers. I was just focusing that my ball lands on a good line and length…and it paid off. My stock delivery was inswing. I bowl outswing too but I have to change my wrist position. However, naturally, I am an inswinger so I was concentrating on bowling my stock delivery only. The pitch was good, naturally, it is the case in Mohali, and there is bounce and movement. The knowledge of the home ground also helped. Even today when I bowl, I try to focus more on bowling in good areas, even if they want to hit me and score runs, they should do it off good areas. .”
The wicket of White pumped in extra energy.
“Obviously he was a pure batsman and he was a professional cricketer playing for his country and getting his wicket proved to be an extra confidence booster.”
Gilchrist bowled out Sandeep in one spell. His next two overs were frugal with just one boundary conceded and the debutant finished with figures of 4-0-21-3.
Parthiv Patel’s resolute 61 and late lower-order hitting propelled SRH to 150/7 and in reply, KXIP didn’t even come close to the target as they were restricted to 120/9. Their campaign was virtually over. It was a bitter end to what was a promising start for the youngster. However, Sandeep’s mind quickly switched over to the positives and recalibration and there were words of praise as well amidst the gloom.
“Joe Dawes our bowling coach told me, ‘You have done a lot better than we expected. You are going to play the next game so just focus on that. Your career has just started and keep working hard’.
“It was a really positive feeling. And I went into a preparation mindset. The sleeping patterns changed. I was sleeping late when I was in the reserves but now I focussed on correcting my daily habits.”
Phone calls and congratulatory messages had flooded Sandeep’s phone through the night. And while you would expect anxiety and excitement to grip a youngster’s mind after such an eventful day, Sandeep calmly says, “I slept with a good mindset that night.”
Sandeep’s seven-year IPL career so far has been chronicled with consistency. In his first season, he finished with eight wickets from four matches and thereafter in every edition he has picked up more than 10 wickets. His wicket count stands at 95 from 79 matches at an impressive average and strike-rate of 23.91 and 18.2 respectively. From a fresh-minded fearless youngster, he’s transformed into a more strategic and mature bowler.
“I have improved a lot as a bowler. With experience, you gain a lot of things. I have become mentally tough. Getting big players out has helped. When I go to play a match or a tournament now, it gives me the confidence that ‘Yes, I have done well against these batsmen and I am good enough to play this league and I belong to this league.’”
Times have changed and so have the methods. And in this ultra-competitive environment, the process of reinvention has helped.
“Last year when I went to SRH, it was the biggest change for me. Because when I was playing for KXIP, I was bowling with the new ball and then the old ball at the death. But at SRH, there was Bhuvneshwar Kumar already so I didn’t normally get the new ball. It was bowling in different phases, sometimes I get fifth over, sometimes sixth or tenth or twelfth over. But that improved my game a lot.”
The first step of reinvention was to develop variations. So he developed the slower bouncer and started employing the knuckle ball last season.
So, after all these years amidst the role change, has his biggest strength changed?
“Swing thi, swing hai aur swing hi rahegi, (Swing is, was and will be my biggest strength)” Sandeep quips. “
“But obviously, I am in a team where Bhuvneshwar is already there but aisa to nahi hai ki mai ab kuch karu hi nahi, right? (It’s not that I stop trying things, right?) I have to bring something new because I have to play matches and perform well. So for that, I am learning new variations.”
The big names that Sandeep speaks of include the likes of Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli as well. The Punjab pacer had got Gayle four times in the IPL while he’s had Kohli’s number six times in the league. He was the first bowler to dismiss Gayle, AB de Villiers and Kohli in the same IPL match.
“The players who had played with me and even the coaching staff, they believed that if you swing well against Gayle (you can get him out). Actually, against any batsman, if you swing well it becomes difficult for them. At that time my mindset was to swing the ball and hit the right areas, especially full. I used to employ outswinger to him.”
While for Kohli it was a more measured approach.
“I bowled in the right areas and tried to mix my swing. Obviously he is so great a batsman and if any bowler is bowling just one dimension, it is very tough (to survive). It is very important to mix everything. Keep varying swing, pace and length is very important.”
One man who constantly provided a helping hand and inspiration in his formative years in the league was his former captain at KXIP, Virender Sehwag.
“In 2014 we played the final and I had 18 wickets. I was sitting with Viru paaji after the final and out of nowhere he told me, ‘Next year tujhe bohot maar padegi‘ (Next year you will get hit a lot). I was a little shocked, “Aise kyu bol rahe ho paaji? (Why are you talking like this) I asked. He was like, ‘you swing the ball well but this year not many knew about you but next year people will plan against you, they will think, he swings well so see out the first two overs and go after him at the death because he doesn’t bowl well in that phase. So your economy will rise and if they play you carefully, you won’t get wickets’.
“So, I asked him what I should do. He said, ‘Tu yorkers daal next year (Bowl yorkers next year). So the batsmen will play the two overs upfront carefully because you swing it well and if you master the art of bowling the yorker and don’t let them hit in the last 2 overs, you will be successful next year as well’. After that, I worked a lot on those yorkers. And next year (2015), my economy was the lowest (for KXIP) – 7.00. So after the 2015 season, I sat thinking, “Last year Viru paaji himself told me what I should improve, so this time I should ask him. So I asked him, what should I learn for next year?
He said, ‘next year wide yorkers daalneki try kar‘. Because if the stump-to-stump yorker goes wrong when you’re bowling 130, then there is every chance of it going for a six. While in wide yorkers, it’s very difficult to hit a six at 130 by opening the face of the bat. It generally clears boundary at 140 or above. So even if he times really well, at 130, it will go for just a four and not a six.
So next year I again brought a new weapon in wide yorker and again my economy was around 7 (7.32, best for KXIP). His mind is amazing. I would suggest any player who meets him, just ask (questions). I was a different bowler every year. At the same time, the mindset he had, playing with him I learned one valuable lesson. ‘kuch bhi ho jaaye, life me confident rehna hai. Apne skill pe kabhi doubt nahi karna hai‘ (No matter what, you have to be confident in life and never doubt your skills). Viru Paaji ka confidence gajab hai (Viru’s confidence is amazing). Even if he got out for 0 in 10 consecutive innings, when you spoke to him you got a feeling he will definitely hit a century in the next,” Sandeep gives out a hearty laugh.
While he is not much in touch with Sehwag since leaving KXIP, he constantly turns to current Indian fielding coach R Sridhar for advice.
Those performances in the first three seasons of the IPL and domestic arena had provided him the gateway into the national team when he was selected for the limited-overs edition of the Zimbabwe tour in 2015. However, he endured a tough time in the two T20Is (73/1 from 7 overs at econ of 10.42) he played and then a shoulder injury derailed his India career.
“I played two matches and then had to undergo shoulder surgery, so I was sidelined for a year. When I came back, it took one to one and a half year for the shoulder to settle down, so my 2 and a half years went in rehab and it was a major surgery. After that my pace went down and the skill too. Then I worked hard to bring it on track slowly.”
The intense competition of pacers in the Indian team doesn’t deter Sandeep from dreaming of the national comeback again. The mind was focussed on having a good IPL season to get back into contention but with the league postponed indefinitely due to coronavirus pandemic, there’s not much he can do apart from carrying out strength and bodyweight training at home.
“I was working on the variations and they were going well. But in this lockdown, I am at home only with not much work happening. I was thinking how to carry on with the things I had worked on!”
These are undoubtedly tough times that bring a lot of uncertainties and fear on and off the field. But it’s during these times that a walk down the memory lane proves to be a mild antidote, rebooting the mind.
“These memories are priceless: playing in such a big league, performing well, and creating special memories with a lot of players. I made a lot of friends and the career graph has been good.
“When IPL was born I was in my first year of U-15 cricket and had been watching it on TV since then for 4 years. It was a dream to play in one of the biggest leagues in the world. And when I got a chance, I achieved success in it (at the very first instant). That debut against SRH was the biggest opportunity of my career and life. It was a career-changing moment.”
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