A swing bowler who once wanted to become a batsman, Sandeep Sharma is currently the leading wicket-taker for Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL 2019. Before the start of the tournament, he sat down with ESPNcricinfo to talk about his role in a strong bowling line-up, learning the knuckle ball from Siddarth Kaul, bowling to the likes of Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli, working on his pace and much more.
You were the lead bowler with Kings XI Punjab. Here with Sunrisers you may not always be in the XI. How does that affect you?
Last year when I came here, it was there in my mind. It's always good to change the team or have healthy competition because that improves your game. And at the same time I know here the competition is high because we have probably the strongest bowling attack in this tournament. So it improves your bowling. And at the same time, the management is amazing. They are always ready to help, like Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) sir, Tom Moody is there, VVS Laxman sir. Everyone helped me a lot last year and I learnt a lot. So I think that change of team helped me a lot.
What specifically did you learn after coming here?
I learnt about mental skills a lot because Murali sir and VVS sir have played a lot of cricket. I spoke to them on how to handle pressure and what to do when things are not going your way, and how to come out of it. I learnt a lot about that and how to keep yourself calm in pressure situations.
You bowl in the Powerplay and someone like Chris Gayle is batting in full flow - how do you deal with that pressure?
When someone like Chris Gayle is batting in the Powerplay, there is always pressure on the bowler. But what you can do best is back yourself, back your best balls. Like my strength is to swing the ball, so I always back that strength of mine and it has always helped me. And I always play with field placements, obviously we have only two fielders to play with. So, I make sure I put those fielders in those areas where I feel my balls can go. Again back my strength - swing bowling, which I know better. At the same time, some days you do well, some days obviously the batsmen are good enough, they will get you some days. So it goes like that but you should have a big heart to bowl in the Powerplay.
You have got Gayle out quite a few times. What's your strategy against him?
As I said earlier, to swing the ball. I always feel if you can swing the ball, any batsman in the world will find it difficult to hit you. So I always back that ball. With Chris Gayle, it's always going across to him because many bowlers have been successful against him, like Bhuvneshwar [Kumar], PK bhai [Praveen Kumar]. That ball gives him some difficult times, so I always try to go across him.
You have also got Virat Kohli out five times. How is bowling to Kohli different from bowling to Gayle?
Actually, I didn't know the number. Yeah, it is quite difficult. Obviously, both of them are the greatest of this sport. So it's always hard but obviously when you are bowling to them, you should back yourself. You know they are good enough players to score runs, you always try to bowl your best balls and again play with their minds, your variations. When you assume they are going to hit like this or something like that, that time your variations come into play. Sometimes you get lucky, you get them out. Sometimes they hit you. It goes like that in T20s.
You talked about variations. Let's say the ball isn't swinging, what are your options then?
Last year I learnt the knuckle ball in the nets and I used it in matches and it came out quite well for me. The knuckle ball is always there and then when the ball is not swinging, you obviously play with your field placements and bowl as straight as possible, and again the slower bouncer is there, the yorker is there. I am working on those balls and it's coming good for me.
Did you discuss the knuckle ball with Bhuvneshwar, because he also bowls it. Or with someone else?
Siddarth Kaul plays for Punjab, even I play for Punjab [in domestic cricket]. I saw him bowl that in matches and spoke to him because Bhuvi obviously I don't meet the whole year. I spoke to Siddarth and he told me this is the grip and you should bowl it like this. So I tried it, but I will tell you one thing: for the knuckle ball everyone's grip is different. People think that knuckle ball you can bowl in the same manner but that's not the case. Everyone's grip is different. My grip is different, I found my feel with a different grip. So I tried bowling in the nets and after around two-three months, I got it right. And when I bowled in the matches, it was like a surprise because I had never bowled a knuckle ball in the IPL.
You swing the ball both ways but your pace is not that high. Is it something you think you should work on?
I was working on it because two-and-a-half years or three years back, I got a shoulder surgery. After that I lost my pace, but I worked harder and this year I am definitely bowling quicker than last year. Last year, they (support staff) told me what needs to be done to increase my pace. They asked me to run harder in my run-up, advised on my bowling action, how to finish it. The whole year I worked on it. Like yesterday (March 17) we were playing a [practice] match, it was great to hear Tom Moody come to me and say, "You are bowling much quicker than last year, I am very happy that you have worked on it". It always feels great when someone appreciates your work. Last year I was bowling around 125 (kph), this year I am definitely bowling around 130.
With Kings XI, you used to bowl at the death as well...
When I was playing with Kings XI Punjab, I used to bowl two overs in the Powerplay and two overs in the death. And it had come quite well for me and I had bowled well in the death also. But here the team is set. Bhuvi, one of the best death bowlers in the world, is here and at the same time, Siddarth Kaul, he is very good at the death. Rashid Khan is there. So obviously I have to find my place. I love that pressure and challenge, that's why we play, right? When in the death, some big hitter like [Andre] Russell, [Kieron] Pollard or MSD [MS Dhoni] is batting, and if you bowl well, that added confidence is there with you. So it always feels great.
Let's say it's the last over of the chase and Dhoni is batting. How many runs do you back yourself to defend?
It's very difficult to say. He's a good enough batsman to get 25-28 or something like that, but anything around 12 to 15 will be okay. I am pretty confident that I would defend but, as I said, MSD is good enough to get any amount of runs except if it's above 36.
Mitchell Johnson was also there with Kings XI. What were your interactions with him about?
Actually his bowling style is different, my bowling style is different. We never spoke about bowling that much, I always talked to him about the mental aspect. He always said that your preparation should be good. You should prepare well in the nets or in the practice matches. If you prepare well, the chances of success are higher. So it's always good to prepare well.
And he helped me with my workout also. He used to tell me your lifestyle should be good. Sleeping at the right time, right amount of sleep, your nutrition, eating habits are very important. Because as a fast bowler, you cannot be eating anything, sleeping at any time. You should feel fresh, you should have good sleep. When you are fresh, you will be bowling better.
What sort of things do you discuss when you, Bhuvneshwar and Kaul are bowling in the nets?
We always discuss about the match. If some bowler goes for some runs, or your execution is not correct all the time. So we speak about it. Sometimes we speak about the field placements that to some batsman you could have kept the fielder in this area. About bowling also, sometimes we plan when we are bowling in the nets, suppose Russell is batting or ABD [AB de Villiers] is batting and he is going to play this shot, what sort of ball you will bowl in the nets. So those kinds of discussions are there and it always helps when you are under pressure.
How do you keep your focus when someone hits you?
I have been talking to some greats of the sport. They always tell me to try and reduce the damage. What happens sometimes is on the first three balls, you go for two sixes, one four. Generally the bowler gets disheartened and the next three balls also they end up bowling bad balls. But at the same time you need to understand if the next three balls you bowl well, it will be 17 runs, or 18 runs. But if you bowl badly, it could go to 25. So never leave your over and that's always there in my mind and I try to follow that.
Fast bowlers have lots of aggression. You are quite calm.
I put my whole aggression into my bowling rather than showing it. Obviously, sometimes it's your nature also. Generally, I don't get angry but that aggression is there to bowl well and I get very angry or hurt when someone hits me. But I don't show it. That's not my nature.
Who was your role model while growing up?
I always looked up to Rahul Dravid sir because I have been to the NCA (National Cricket Academy) many times. When I was young, 14-15 years old, I used to go to the NCA, and that time Rahul Dravid sir was playing. He used to come to the NCA around 9 o'clock in the morning and used to leave around 4 or 5 o'clock in the evening. He used to come, train, then bat, and bat, and then hit the gym. He would spend the whole day there. I used to think after achieving so much, and it was towards the end of his career, at that age also he is doing so much hard work. So I always looked up to him and still do for his hard work, dedication and discipline.
Did he give you any advice?
He told me you should always have self-belief. No matter whom you are bowling to, no matter in which situation you are bowling, you should always have that self-belief that "yes, I can do it; I am good enough a player to do well in this situation, that's why people have picked me". That one suggestion I always keep with me that to any batsman, in any situation, I should have that self-belief that okay, I can do it, I can do it.
What are your goals this season?
My goal has always been to take five wickets [in an innings] in the IPL because a couple of times I took four wickets, but couldn't take five. And I have been on a hat-trick five or six times but couldn't get it. So that's the dream, hat-trick or five wickets. And the ultimate goal is to bowl well in the IPL and lift the trophy. I have been in two finals, both of them my team lost, whichever team I was playing for. So these three dreams are there, winning the IPL, hat-trick and five wickets.