The man who stared adversity in the eye
Sachin Tendulkar, Chris Gayle, Adam Gilchrist and Paul Valthaty have scored hundreds in the IPL this year. They also share common ground in a rather unusual place: they have all fallen to Pune Warriors legspinner Rahul Sharma. The tall 24-year old from Jalandhar has been the most impressive Indian domestic bowler this IPL, and one of the few bright spots for Pune in an otherwise disappointing campaign. Rahul has picked up 16 wickets in 12 games, at an economy rate of 5.33, making him the third highest wicket-taker in the tournament as on May 18. That figure seems even more remarkable when compared to other Indian legspinners, particularly the two most prominent: Amit Mishra has gone at 7.07 an over, Piyush Chawla has leaked 7.71.
Rahul's performances against Mumbai Indians, 2 for 7 and 1 for 14, prompted even Tendulkar to compliment him. Not bad for someone who, after being diagnosed with a facial nerve disorder a season ago, had to use eye-drops after every delivery to give himself a chance of spotting the next one in the field.
Rahul had signed up with Deccan Chargers for IPL 2010 and was looking forward to making his debut under a man he credits for playing a major role in his rise - Adam Gilchrist. Six days before the tournament began though, Rahul developed severe pain on the right side of his face, his vision became hazy and his doctor declared that he could not play as he had Bell's Palsy.
"I was devastated as I desperately wanted to play," Rahul told ESPNcricinfo. "But I was weak after taking medication for my condition." Rahul's desperation was understandable. After having remained on the fringes of the Punjab team since making his first-class debut in 2006, he had enjoyed a breakthrough 2009-10 domestic season.
An extended run with the Ranji side hadn't produced anything noteworthy apart from a six-wicket haul against Railways, but he topped the bowling averages for Punjab in the Vijay Hazare one-day tournament that followed, taking 13 wickets at an average of 16.38 and an economy rate of 4.12.
His illness was causing practical problems before the IPL though. With dodgy vision in one eye, batting was one of them. Even allowing for the fact that he would not be required to perform much with the bat, there was no way he could be sharp while fielding, which is one area where passengers are rudely exposed in the shortest format.
That is where Gilchrist came in, and the former Deccan captain's unwavering support left a lasting mark of gratitude on Rahul. "Gilchrist said I had to push myself to play, no matter what." A compromise was worked out. Rahul fielded in the 30-yard circle, armed with eye-drops and a towel. "I could not even close my right eye; it was so bad that it used to remain open throughout. So I used to put eye-drops after every ball. I also carried a towel, and used to wipe my eye whenever it started to water too much."
How did an Australian invest so much faith in a little-known young Indian bowler in spite of the potentially career-threatening illness? Rahul said it was due to the sort of commitment Gilchrist has. "He has been the most supportive," Rahul said. "He is a very dedicated person and talks a lot to his team-mates. Due to my outgoing nature, I used to interact a lot with the Deccan overseas players and got along very well with them. In fact, Andrew Symonds even used to jokingly imitate the twitching of my eye."
A year of treatment has led to a lot of improvement. "It's just that now my eye closes a bit while bowling, that is all." That hasn't prevented him from troubling batsmen with the bounce and zip that he generates using his tall frame. His most expensive four-over spell this season has gone for just 29 runs. Even Lasith Malinga hasn't been that miserly.
The story doesn't end there. Not one of Rahul's 16 victims has been a bowler; more often than not, he has dismissed the opposition's key batsmen, including Kumar Sangakkara twice. The mode of his dismissals is revealing of the restricting fuller line he bowls. Almost all the batsmen have gone either bowled, stumped, leg-before, caught behind or caught at long-off and long-on.
Rahul says he has always believed in making batsmen play. "There is no point in bowling wide outside off stump, especially in the shorter formats where you are likely to get hit. My strength is bounce, I concentrate on that. I don't bowl the googly very frequently, but try to use it against a new batsman."
The subtle turn and quicker pace for a legspinner have inevitably brought comparisons with Anil Kumble, and Rahul does not forget to pick his brains whenever he runs in to him. "I treat him as my guru. He has helped me a lot. I have spoken to him whenever I have been in Bangalore."
Rahul started playing as a medium-pacer, and that probably explains the unorthodox action. He turned to legspin during his Under-14 days. He has found it difficult to become a regular in the Punjab Ranji team, though he has been successful in domestic one-dayers for two seasons now. "When I made my debut, Punjab had a lot of good spinners and I also got injured thereafter. Also, because of the ICL, there was a lot of churn and many new players were given chances."
Bhupinder Singh snr and Devender Arora, his coaches, have stood by him. "Whatever I am today, it is due to my parents, Bhupinder sir, Arora sir, and Gilchrist." It was Bhupinder who pushed for his selection with Deccan.
With Gilchrist moving over to Kings XI Punjab, Rahul could have had an opportunity to turn out for his home IPL franchise, but he had already opted for Pune, led by his Punjab captain Yuvraj Singh. "Yuvraj spent some time with the Punjab Ranji team last season, and that is when he got to know me. He has supported me a lot this season. I had eagerly wanted to bowl and he has given me a chance right from the first game. He is very helpful and keeps talking to me throughout, whether on the field or off it."
Having battled against an illness that threatened to take his livelihood away from him, Rahul does not think too much about weighty matters like India selection. He does hope to get a job with the Sahara group. "Mera kaam perform karna hai (My job is to perform)." Meanwhile, he'll continue to fight everything that comes in his way.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo