June 19, 2014

'My confidence goes up when Dhoni throws me the ball in tough situations'

Mohit Sharma, whose impressive performances in the IPL earned him an India call-up, talks about earning his captain's trust, and bowling variations

You are the second fast bowler in the IPL to take 20 wickets in a season at least twice. Do you know who the first was?
No idea at all (laughs).

Lasith Malinga - he has done it three times.
It is a proud thing when your name is taken along with a big bowler like Malinga. This IPL, I learned a lot. During my debut season last year I had not bowled so much at the death. This year I was involved at all times during an innings: from taking the new ball, the Powerplay overs, the middle overs, and the final five. This season, more than from the good things, I have learned from the mistakes I have made.

Can you elaborate on that?
Despite the wickets, I did not have a consistent season: my economy rate in this IPL was higher than last year, so I have understood that there are quite a few things I need to get better at. In the recent past I have lost the ability to swing even when my seam is coming out nicely. I have given away a lot of runs. It is important to have good control and accuracy regardless of the format. There were pressure situations when I performed badly, including my worst performance - against Delhi Daredevils, where my figures were 4-0-51-1. After the match, I spoke to my coach, Vijay Yadav [former India wicketkeeper], the Haryana Cricket Association secretary, and the BCCI treasurer, Anirudh Chaudhury, who told me to stay composed, since a hammering obviously has an impact on you mentally.

What have you learnt from watching Malinga bowl?
His biggest strength is consistency. Despite having such an awkward action he manages to bowl a consistent line. That is something I would like to learn. I have also noticed he bowls according to the pitch - if there is pace on the wicket he will not go for the slower ball. He will not be defensive and bowl a bouncer to a new batsman. Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar] and I have often discussed these things while watching Malinga.

What is the key to handling pressure in T20?
The most important person who helps you handle pressure is your captain. I am lucky MS Dhoni is my skipper at India and Chennai Super Kings. If I get hit for a six and two fours in the same over, Mahi bhai does not grumble. He will say that I bowled well but the batsman hit a good shot. Such support from your captain puts you at ease during pressure situations. It is important to stay calm and composed. The more you think, the more the pressure is compounded.

Can you give us an instance of receiving Dhoni's support?
In Dubai against Mumbai Indians, Kieron Pollard and Ambati Rayudu were at the crease during the final overs. My plan was to bowl back-of-the-hand slower deliveries pitched back of a length. Mahi bhai agreed [with that approach] since the pitch was very slow and the ball was gripping the surface, making it difficult for the batsmen to hit out. He treats you in the same manner if you perform or fail.

How has Stephen Fleming, the Super Kings coach, helped you?
The best part about Fleming is that he never makes you feel like you are talking to a coach. He behaves like a team-mate. He grasps various things about you, considering he has been a successful player and captain at the international level. He understands how I can handle pressure and when I should bowl during a match. During the playoff game, Mumbai threatened to raise a 200-plus target at one stage. During the second time-out Fleming pointed out that my final two overs could turn the game back in our favour. That put me on the alert and I complemented Aashu bhai [Ashish Nehra] well. We restricted Mumbai to a target that was achievable. Such prompt advice from your coach can only build your confidence and inspire you.

"I take two sheets of paper: I write positive feelings on one and the negative ones on the second. Then I bin the sheet of negative feelings. So if things are not going in my favour I can recollect those positive thoughts and pump myself up"

From being a first-timer last year you have now swiftly grown into the lead Indian bowler for CSK. How big a responsibility is it?
When you perform, the expectations increase. But at the same time you have to work harder. I am not a finished product or a lead bowler. I am just trying to gather good things from here and there to make sure I come close to being the leading bowler everyone in the Indian team wants me to be.

Your Haryana team-mates say that you have become smarter and more confident now.
It is the game's demand: you have to be smart. It is necessary to be street-smart. The performances might ebb and flow, but when your captain and team are confident in you, you automatically switch on. Mahi bhai throws the ball to me during tough situations and that responsibility has increased my confidence.

What is your stock delivery?
The outswinger. I continue to work on it. My aim this year has been not to experiment. Like, during the slog overs I stuck to the slower ball and the yorker - deliveries that worked nicely for me. I realised I was not getting enough swing, so I have gone back to work on my basics.

Other than bowling at the death and increasing your pace, what aspects of your bowling have you worked on recently?
During the ODI series in South Africa last year, Duncan Fletcher [the India coach] pointed out that my body was falling backwards during my loading. That was preventing me from staying stable and was affecting my overall bowling. Duncan told me that when you are tired, the body automatically falls back, especially when you try to put in more effort. So Joe Dawes [the India bowling coach] worked with me and now my speed has increased 5 to 7 kph.

Have you become better at variations and mixing up deliveries now?
It is all about confidence in the ball you are going to deliver. But as soon as any doubt creeps into your mind - like I might pitch a half-volley or a full toss while attempting a yorker - things go wrong. During the slog overs variations remain the key since the pitches are usually batsmen-friendly, and because the ball gets old and does not swing. Yes, I might go for runs, but it is also the best phase to take wickets. I learned that watching Dwayne Bravo, who was the highest wicket-taker in the 2013 IPL.

Tell us how you developed the back-of-the-hand slower ball.
I have been hit for quite a few sixes from that delivery!

I started bowling that ball after watching Ian Harvey bowl it. I did it first with the tennis ball before I moved to higher grades of cricket. It is now in my muscle memory, but I agree it is an important delivery towards the end in limited-overs matches.

How have batsmen become smarter in scoring at death?
Batsmen have started using the crease a lot now. They try to force and change your plans by clearing the front leg. Usually the bowler will try to react accordingly. At times the batsman's stunt turns out to be just a bluff as he stays his ground and makes use of a loose delivery. It is a challenge, but as a bowler I also learn to not react and bowl to my plans. The tussle is good fun.

In the final over of the 2014 World T20 semi-final against South Africa, AB de Villiers was challenging me to change my lines. I know AB uses the crease very smartly. I had noticed him backing out towards the leg side, exposing all his stumps. So I thought I would bowl him wide yorkers on the off stump. But since I bowl from close to the stumps, it's difficult for me to be accurate with wide yorkers. So my execution that day was not correct and AB took advantage of it and the short boundary. I went for 14 runs. But such situations help me improve and improvise.

Is it true that you write down your thoughts on match days?
Yes, I do that. I take two sheets of paper: I write whatever positive feelings are running through my mind on one and negative ones on the second. Then I bin the sheet of negative feelings. So if things are not going in my favour, I can recollect those positive thoughts and pump myself up.

You have only played seven ODIs. How good are your chances for the World Cup?
A realistic goal is to take it one series at a time. There is no point thinking too far ahead because that would only add unnecessary pressure on me. Instead, I need to improve my batting, my fielding, improve my strike rate, and get the ball to move both ways. These are the areas I aim to get better at rather than thinking about the World Cup. I believe I am moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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