When the Mumbai Indians squad, covered in their PPEs, landed in the sultry August heat of Abu Dhabi for IPL 2020, James Pattinson was still in lockdown in Victoria, Australia, in 7 degrees Celsius. Pattinson, like most other players around the world, had not played any cricket for many months, and after being named as a replacement for Lasith Malinga, he had to suddenly fly to the UAE to face an additional 30-plus degrees and play two months of challenging T20 cricket.
Pattinson was preparing for the Australian summer before that, and "luckily" he had been training with the white ball when he got a call for the IPL. But was he going to even get a game early on, joining a pace-heavy bowling attack, which included Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult, Mitchell McClenaghan and Nathan Coulter-Nile? As many experts had predicted, and Pattinson himself expected, he wasn't in the Mumbai Indians' initial plans. But Coulter-Nile arrived with a side strain and Pattinson "was surprised to get a game", as he revealed before the game against the Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Since then, the Mumbai Indians have carved out a specific role for Pattinson, with the seamer moulding himself so well for it that they haven't had to change their bowling attack even once in six games. The result: Pattinson is the joint-fourth among the top wicket-takers this season with nine scalps, only behind Kagiso Rabada (15), Bumrah (11), Boult (10) and Mohammed Shami (10).
The role Pattinson has been given is to bowl two overs with the new ball, one in the 10-14-over period and the last at the death, which allows Bumrah to start bowling towards the end of the powerplay and keep two for the slog overs. One of the things that has worked well for Pattinson is that he is a hit-the-deck bowler, and that skill comes handy on pitches in the UAE where fast bowlers barely get any assistance. Pattinson aims for that short-of-a-length area, which he can use for extra bounce, or for cutters.
ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data on length from this IPL shows that in powerplays so far, Pattinson has bowled about 55% of his 60 deliveries either short or short-of-a-good-length and conceded only 39 runs off those 33 deliveries while picking up one wicket.
Hitting such lengths is a feature of the overall plan the Mumbai Indians have been following for a while now in the IPL.
Another weapon Pattinson has used with great success this season - his maiden IPL - has been his change-ups, which he had been working on before the tournament. What else does a fast bowler do when pitches don't offer swing or seam movement? Bowl some cutters, take the pace off the ball and wait for the batsmen to miscue the ball with your fielders at the boundary.
Case in point: Pattinson was bowling a crucial 16th over with David Warner on 58 and the Sunrisers needing 70 off 30 balls, which is quite achievable in Sharjah. After slanting two slower deliveries across Warner from over the wicket, Pattinson came around the wicket and sent down a slow, short and wide legcutter that Warner chased desperately and ended up edging to short-third man for a spectacular catch by Ishan Kishan.
Pattinson says planning for particular batsmen has been key to his and the Mumbai Indians' bowling success.
"It's just the planning that goes into it," Pattinson said on Saturday. "Before the game, we plan and work out our fields, different plans for different batters. It's just about executing that. I think the confidence they have really rubs off on me, especially Trent and Boom [Bumrah] have great confidence in their ability. It's great to have that rub off and you going to games with that confidence and knowing you're surrounded by world-class bowlers.
"It's good to go out and play my part. I've got two really, really good white-ball bowlers in Jasprit and Trent, it's nice to play a back-seat role for them and try and help out the team as much as I can."
Pattinson is also a lesser-known entity in the IPL because apart from his start-stop Australia career marred by injuries, the only T20 league he has played in is the Big Bash. He picked up 5 for 33 for the Brisbane Heat with the new ball at the beginning of the year but in the IPL his role is not restricted to opening the bowling. In the second half of the tournament, too, Pattinson could prove handy with his reverse swing, which captain Rohit Sharma, before the IPL, had said could come into play as pitches go through more wear and tear.
For now, Pattinson is enjoying what he is doing: bowling alongside Boult and Bumrah and playing the back-seat role.