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Feature

A journey of labour and love: how Arshdeep Singh became India's match-winner

From suffering abuse for a dropped catch to leading the pace attack in Australia, the young fast bowler is alleviating the pain of Jasprit Bumrah's absence

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
05-Nov-2022
So Arshdeep Singh drops a catch. Catches are dropped every day. Twenty-eight have been dropped in the Asia Cup. Six of them are easy. This is easy. Except, it is in a tight finish against Pakistan. There is no guarantee that India win if Arshdeep had caught it. He bowls the last ball. India lose
Arshdeep is a Sikh, and he ends up being called Khalistani by abusers. Never mind that his father gave 25 years to India's Central Industrial Security Forces (CISF). If you know anything about the history of Sikhs, demands for Khalistan, and the recent use of the term to other the Sikhs during and after the farmers' protests in 2020 and 2021, you know how vicious this targeting is.
Before you go #notallindians on this, remember that you are not the victim here. A 23-year-old from a minority community who chose not to go to Canada to pursue cricket is. No matter how small the number of abusers, Arshdeep has had sleepless nights because of this. He has wondered if a cricket match against Pakistan is all it takes.

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A year ago, another Indian was othered. Mohammed Shami was asked to go to Pakistan because he bowled a loose over after India's batters had failed.
On October 23, 2022, Shami and Arshdeep are back up against the same team. At possibly the largest gathering in cricket: an India-Pakistan World Cup match at the MCG.
Arshdeep has the new ball. He has never bowled in a proper match in Australia before. For preparation, he has spent time in Perth and played a couple of warm-up games. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the senior pro, has bowled the first over. Like with most bowlers on quick pitches, Bhuvneshwar has bowled with deep third and deep fine leg. Arshdeep, though, starts with a deep third and deep backward square.
We know Babar Azam has been attacked with the short ball by most teams. Arshdeep has the field for it. A short ball is part of the plan, but when it will arrive? Surely not first ball? But what if it does? Arshdeep runs in and bowls the picture-perfect inswinger to trap Babar in front. He is caught on the crease. Not sure whether it is the field or the bounce he has seen in the first over, but if Babar comes forward to this ball, he doesn't get out. However, he is hanging back.
A new batter comes in. Square leg stays back. The short ball, though, doesn't arrive immediately. Neither to Shan Masood nor Mohammad Rizwan. Not until it does at the end of Arshdeep's second over. And how it arrives. Perfect height, perfect line. His first bouncer in Australia. Rizwan can neither keep it down nor get all of it because he has to drag it from outside off. Caught by that man there for that ball two overs in the making.

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"That feeling was so good," Arshdeep says. "So much love."
Love. He got it from his team-mates at the Asia Cup even though you might have seen on TV captain Rohit Sharma not listening to him. Rohit has backed Arshdeep even more after that. He wears his hair in a patka - more like a bandana - on the field but proudly sports the dastar, the proper turban, when off the field.
A lot of love has gone into constructing these overs. In knowing where exactly to pitch the short ball. In looking for the swing for "two-three balls" and trying to hit the pads. "The preparation," Arshdeep says when asked how he got it so right. "Where the short ball has to be pitched. We planned well. Behind the scenes, the coaching staff told me it bounces more in Australia so you have to bang it in a little fuller. The ball fell right. Luckily it went to hand too. But there was planning behind this. There are big square boundaries so we have to use them."
It's not all results. He knows on another day it could have been top-edged for a six. "Luckily it went to hand." However, he does get greedy seeing the tail and stops bowling defensively. He goes for a wicket, bowls length, and Shaheen Shah Afridi hits him for a six. You just cannot lose focus in a T20.

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Arshdeep's bowling coach Paras Mhambrey, who has worked with him on getting the run-up straighter so that he is able to swing it in and swing it late, has observed Arshdeep observe things.
"He's the kind of guy who likes to talk a lot and he has a chat with the other senior guys, and I've seen him discussing a lot with Bhuvi and Shami because those guys have played out here," Mhambrey says. "So the kind of learning that he's taking, he's trying to implement that in a game. I'll give that credit to him. Obviously having a chat and understanding what is required, but to be able to go out there and execute it and do it yourself as an individual, skills comes in."
There is a bit of Jasprit Bumrah in how coaches talk about Arshdeep as a quick learner. He came into this World Cup primarily as a death bowler not even certain of a spot in the starting XI until Bumrah was ruled out with injury. Not without reason. Since the start of 2021, Arshdeep has the fourth-best economy rate at the death in T20s.
If you assume half-volleys and full tosses at the death are yorkers gone wrong, Arshdeep has the third-highest efficiency when attempting yorkers. Even when he misses the yorker, his economy rate is the third best for those balls. He nails them from round the wicket too, as he has the second-best yorker efficiency and best economy rate when missing the yorker.
India have come here and seen conditions different to the usual Australian summer. The ball has moved, the weather has been cold; Arshdeep has taken the new ball and swung it both ways. Head coach Rahul Dravid is counting his blessings.
"If you were to ask me in November [last year] when I first took over and I had a list of bowlers in my mind," Dravid says. "Sure, Arshdeep was there, but he had had one good IPL. But the way he's come along after that, he's come and forced his way into the side and done really well. So that's a fantastically heartening thing to see."
"Arshdeep knows T20s is a fickle sport. What happens in the end is less dependent on how you bowl than in any other format of cricket. A secessionist one day, a saviour the next"

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It is wet. Really wet. Shakib Al Hasan is running his hand on the grass and showing the water to the umpires. It is unfair on Bangladesh, you may feel, to start so quickly after the rain break but it is not easy on India either. Even Shakib acknowledges that. India have to field in the wet, grip that bar of soap every time it comes back from the outfield, and they have nine an over to defend against 10 wickets in hand. India's throwdown specialist is at the boundary with a hard brush to scrub the wet grass and mud off the bowlers' boots.
The Adelaide pitch starts off slow and then skids on beautifully even before the rain arrives. In his first over, Arshdeep is taken for three fours by the marauding Litton Das. After the rain break, Arshdeep is back to bowling at the death: overs 12, 14 and 16. He takes two wickets in the 12th over and keeps bowling to his field after that.
Bangladesh need 20 in the final over. Arshdeep bowls a perfect yorker to start. The second ball is short, and launched over the short square boundary. This time Arshdeep is not greedy. This time he is not sure he can keep nailing the yorker with the wet ball. When the heat is on, though, Arshdeep finishes with four yorkers. Some of the support staff are left wondering how they even managed to bowl in such damp conditions.

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When his mother used to put him on her bicycle carrier to drop him for cricket practice, the greedy young Arshdeep used to finish his tiffin during that ride. Before he became famous, he used to run in Chandigarh's parks till he collapsed and would lie down, looking at the stars above. Somewhere between that greedy boy and a star today, Arshdeep knows that T20 is a fickle sport. You can see it in how he talks about what he tried to do and not getting excited or bogged down by what happened. What happens in the end is less dependent on how you bowl than in any other format of cricket. Abused as a secessionist one day, hailed as a saviour the next. In between: a lot of love, learning and labour.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo