"It's been a sort of fairy tale for me," RP Singh says as he takes a late lunch before heading for a practice session.
Three for 26 and 4 for 13 in the final and semi-final of the World Twenty20. A five-for in his first Test at Lord's. Getting Kevin Pietersen out three times in a three-Test series. It certainly has been coming up roses for RP recently. One of the most improved fast bowlers in the game today, he came back into the side during the Bangladesh tour earlier in the summer and has grown in confidence with each game.
His captains have called upon him to get the side out of tight corners at various times. In the World Twenty20 against South Africa, when their batting looked good to surpass India's 153, RP rocked South Africa's dream with a sensational spell. Then against arch-rivals Pakistan he took two quick wickets early, and when 20 were required off the last two overs, he gave the well-set Misbah-ul-Haq two off three balls, and two extras, before cleaning up Umar Gul. Deservedly, RP was India's top bowler in the tournament, with 12 wickets, which put him in joint second place on the wicket-takers' list, alongside Stuart Clark, and earned him a Mercedes from the Indian broadcaster Neo Sports.
I am ten minutes late. "Thoda jaldi karna, please" [do it fast], RP says. "Kahan reh gaye the aap [where were you?] I was waiting for you". It is the equivalent of the ball that he gets to jag in to the right-hander before the batsman can get into position to defend. RP has always been a straight talker, and his Uttar Pradesh team-mates will vouch for it.
RP is the son of a telephone operator from Rae Bareli, a town in the agricultural heartland of Uttar Pradesh, whose claim to fame used to be that it had elected Indira and Sonia Gandhi to Parliament. Seven years ago he moved to Lucknow to enroll in UP's famous sports college and hostel system, which has proved a fast track to national reckoning for a number of youngsters from the state. Suresh Raina was RP's senior by a year at the college. Both played India Under-17 cricket together and then represented the country at the Under-19 World Cup in 2004.
Deepak Sharma, one of RP's chief mentors from those days remembers how RP took his books to Dhaka during that tournament, knowing he had to take the important Grade 12 examination less than a week after his return. He did well enough, missing the first-class mark (60%) by a small margin.
RP is all praise for the sports college system. "We never had any distractions, really" he says. "The cricket ground was just few yards' walk through the hostel gates. And for someone from Rae Bareli, where there is hardly any cricket infrastructure, it was just what I needed."
His hour came soon enough. It was a time when the national selectors were looking for youth. When he got his first Test cap he had just played eight one-dayers. It didn't deter him that he was going to make his debut on the famously flat track of Faisalabad.
"I was under enough pressure because it was a batting paradise where nothing was happening. But I wanted to set a good tone, with good speed and swing. Over by over I fought patiently against the conditions and ended up being Man of the Match. It was a dream debut - that too, against a country like Pakistan." Disappointment was just around the corner, though: RP was dropped after just one more Test and had to sit out of the next ten Tests India played - against England, West Indies and Sri Lanka.
|We never had any distractions, really. The cricket ground was just a few yards' walk through the hostel gates. For someone from Rae Bareli, where there is hardly any cricket infrastructure, it was just what I needed|
He went back to Uttar Pradesh, but did not shirk the hard work. He knew he belonged up there, and the belief kept him afloat. Sharma remembers the conversations he had with RP in those days. "The most difficult period for a coach is when the player is not playing, but strangely he never was low on morale. He was aware of the opportunities in the future."
The comeback came against Bangladesh. Irfan Pathan's loss of form had left Ravi Shastri, the cricket manager for the tour, desperately seeking a left-arm pace bowler who could get the ball to swing into right-handers. He talked to TA Sekhar at the MRF Pace Foundation, who recommended RP.
Sekhar also pushed RP's case when Tim Boon, the Leicestershire coach, was looking for players to sign. RP got to the county for a two-week stint that helped him, among other things, to get used to English conditions just before India toured there. "My time at Leicester was well spent," RP says. "They did a significant amount of work on my leg strength, which proved decisive with my body action, and eventually with my pace and rhythm."
Pace and rhythm are the key words. Pakistan's captain Shoaib Malik was all praise for RP after his performance at the World Twenty20: "The pace has gone up, the control has gone up, and he has become really consistent."
Venkatesh Prasad, the Indian bowling coach, believes the changes have come gradually. "He has worked hard on getting his non-bowling arm sharper towards the batsman. If you look at his run-up, it wouldn't suggest he is fast, but because he is getting his body in the right position, he comes fast after pitching." The truth of this would seem to be borne out by the numbers of batsmen who have been done in against RP before they could get their bats down. Especially lethal is the delivery that starts as if it is swinging away in the air before darting in. RP says that particular ball comes naturally to him now.
Another successful tactic has been bowling round the stumps, which paid off in a big way against Pietersen and Michael Vaughan during the England series. RP says he has been bowling from around the wicket on the domestic circuit with good results for a while now, but at the Lord's Test it was actually Zaheer Khan who suggested he try it. "I bowled Michael Vaughan round the wicket . So we decided to use it from time to time as a surprise weapon," says RP. He finished with 12 wickets from the three Tests, in third place behind Ryan Sidebottom and Zaheer.
RP says he does not set himself goals, but admits "it was an amazing feeling to read my name on the Lord's honours board".
Damien Fleming, the former Australia swing bowler, rates the current Indian fast bowling line-up highly, but says that RP has a way to go yet. "It will take experience for him to understand his bowling. Like, he really struggled in Mumbai in the final ODI against Australia for control. That can happen when you are young. He was getting out of the contest too early and releasing the ball too early. There's not much skills-wise that he really needs to learn. It's more the mental and tactical side he should focus on." Prasad thinks RP "needs to improve on his consistency and needs to get a good slower ball".
RP agrees with the appraisals. "The variations are not working out and I need to work on a slower delivery and get better at mixing up deliveries," he admits.
"What is important is to get the margin of difference between the runs and wickets down, and that will only come with experience." For that to happen, bowlers need support. "Fielding is the most important area to cut down on singles and grab those half-chances, only then can we consistently get teams out."
What does he think of using aggression as a means of tilting the scales? "Being aggressive..." he hangs on to the thought before continuing, "is also correct. There are certain times when you need to be aggressive, but at the same time it's important to keep your cool and not lose focus. If I get thrashed, the next ball has to be a dot; it should be a good ball."
The captain and wicketkeeper have key roles in providing the bowler with inputs, by virtue of being the two men on the field who are paying the most attention to ball-by-ball proceedings. Luckily for RP, Mahendra Singh Dhoni fulfils both responsibilities in the one-day game for India. Dhoni also happens to be RP's best friend in the team.
"We've been friends for a while now," he says. "What I have learned from him is to be cool and to enjoy whatever one is doing. He has a different concept altogether. What is important to him is, one should find a way to bounce back and at the same time enjoy the game."
When I use the word "suddenly" to describe his rapid transformation, he frowns. "'Suddenly' is the wrong word." He agrees to "grown". "Yes, I've grown into one of the main bowlers. I started as one-change for Uttar Pradesh before taking the responsibility of the new ball. The same has now happened playing for India, and if the improvement keeps happening, then it shouldn't be a problem."
Over the course of the year RP has shown he has the potential to possibly become India's lead bowler in the seasons ahead. He has already shown that he is best suited to being a strike bowler than a stock bowler. He has the awareness, the attitude and the intelligence. "People who play at the international level and survive, adapt to any conditions," he says. "What is important is how soon one adapts."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo