Is the old RP back?
RP Singh. Unfit. A talent stalled. A fast bowler gone astray. MS Dhoni's favourite pick. These are some of the immediate conclusions everyone, not just critics and the media, drew as soon as RP's name comes up. At some point in the past RP did struggle to find his rhythm, his pace and lost his place in the Indian team.
But that was RP in 2011, the last time he played for India, during the tour of England when he was rushed from a vacation in the US after Dhoni told the selectors he wanted a left-arm seamer in place of the injured Zaheer Khan.
As a replacement RP did not make many more headlines. He then missed the entire domestic season last year, sidelined by a knee injury. At 25, RP was still young, but he had just played 14 Tests and fewer ODIs than Ravindra Jadeja, who had made his limited-overs international debut four years after him. He was a dangerous bowler in the IPL at times, but RP could not translate that into his performances in first-class cricket.
Surely those questions would have clouded his mind during his lengthy wait. This week RP has the opportunity to change those widely held perceptions about him as he leads Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji quarterfinals against favourites Karnataka.
The UP selectors decided to put RP in charge instead of Piyush Chawla, under whom the team managed just two outright victories during the eight-round league stage. The fact that RP did not play in UP's final two group matches did not matter to the selectors, because they had seen enough of him in the first six rounds, in which he took 21 wickets including a five-for in his final match in Kolkata against Bengal.
The extra responsibility might just bring out the best from RP. It will give RP, one of UP's senior-most players, more onus to provide direction to the team.
"There is a bhook (hunger) inside him, since he has not played the last two matches, and this match is important for him. I feel he has been bowling with good rhythm and strength and am positive he will take wickets," says Ashish Winston Zaidi, the former UP fast bowler and captain and currently the team's manager.
A fast bowler is hungry to take wickets every match and Zaidi says he has seen that killer instinct in RP. According to Zaidi, RP has the aura and experience to handle the players and different match situations, which could prove important during knockout matches.
As a bowler RP's biggest strength remains his ability to swing the ball both ways. He is not Mitchell Johnson but his accuracy, when he is in rhythm, can pose batsmen awkward questions. Zaidi provides the example of RP's spell against Baroda in early November at Moti Baug Stadium, on a pitch where the ball was turning square and bouncing unevenly. Only eight wickets fell to fast bowlers, and RP got six of them.
"They had prepared a completely spin-friendly track but he managed to swing the ball in to the right-handers and surprised the batsmen. I remember this guy who left the ball and was bowled," Zaidi says.
During the training session today RP wore an effervescent smile as he conversed with coach Venkatesh Prasad. RP did not bowl at full pelt, but kept his focus more on hitting the right length, which Prasad reckons is a warning sign for Karnataka over the next five days. "The moment he bends his back he hits an outstanding length and it is extremely difficult to play that length. The ball that comes back in to the right-handed batsmen is lethal and that is what I told him today," Prasad says.
The pitch in Bangalore has a greenish tinge, but the grass was being shaved by late afternoon. The bounce is likely to be good, but batsmen should enjoy themselves as the pitch dries. Prasad is not worried because he says he has seen RP extracting movement out of a virtually dead surface in Rajkot against Saurashtra, in a drawn match that produced 1000-plus runs. "It was absolutely flat. We made a plan to bowl short and have a leg slip and short leg and attack. RP executed that superbly," Prasad says. "On such a track he was getting the ball to bounce and move. He could not get the wickets but still the effort was outstanding."
Time away from work perhaps prevented RP from getting disillusioned and encouraged him to work on his consistency. "It is frustrating to sit out when others are playing," Prasad says. "But he took that in his stride, worked hard on his fitness and that is why he looks leaner this season."
Prasad believes RP is still one of the best left-arm seamers in the country. Zaidi, meanwhile, is confident RP will wear India colours again. It now remains for RP to go and make the headlines this week without feeling the pressure of those expectations.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo