Harshal Patel: 'I learnt how to express myself in games without worrying about whether I'm going to play the next match'

How did an "impatient, immature" youngster sort his mind and his game to go on to become the top wicket-taker in the IPL?

"I've not just played the game I love for ten years at the professional level, I've learnt so many life lessons"  •  BCCI

"I've not just played the game I love for ten years at the professional level, I've learnt so many life lessons"  •  BCCI

Harshal "Purple" Patel has been in the form of his life. A record-equalling 32 wickets in last year's IPL vaulted him into contention for the India side at 31, a full 12 years after he first made a mark for India Under-19s. Much of his recent success has come about because of a changed mindset and a more practical approach to life and cricket, as he reveals in this interview.
Gujarat, Haryana, USA - you have lived in a few places. Which do you call home?
Ahmedabad has always been home. I was born and brought up here, I started playing cricket here. It was after the 2003 World Cup that I started going to coaching camps. I have a newspaper clipping of my picture, with a description that read: "Cricket fever reaches college grounds as World Cup begins." That's my first memory of playing cricket in the city.
I was always better than my peers in age-group cricket, so I have a lot of memories of dominating all age groups at U-15s, -17s and -19s.
You left there as an 18-year-old for better opportunities in Haryana. Does it feel special to return to your original home as an India player now?
I don't look at it that way. The moment you start thinking, "Oh, now I'm an India cricketer", you start attaching expectations and value to that tag. Of course, that tag is valuable to me, and I've earned it through my performances, but I have no control over when it will be taken away. The more value you attach to something, the more pressure you feel trying to defend it. I just think of myself as a cricketer who is at the peak of his game and wants to continue to learn, get better. Whatever comes my way, I'll happily accept it.
I've never attached a lot of value to external things ever since I was probably 24-25. It goes back to that old cliché of "focusing on the process". You do your job well and all these other things take care of themselves. I have never thought about things like how much money I'm making, whether I'm playing for India or where my place is in the hierarchy.
"I've always been driven by the question "Why?" If I see something happen, I ask why. Why are things like this? What can I do better? Can I learn the basics of this?"
Is this the best you've felt - physically and with the ball in hand?
One hundred per cent. I wrote in one of my Instagram posts in 2019 after I had a record-breaking Ranji Trophy season that I've never felt more confident with the ball in hand and with my body.
Obviously the physical part came with a lot of back-end work. I'd been training for three-four years. I received a little bit of input from the Team India trainers, but largely I've created my own programmes that have come on the back of three years of intense studying of strength and conditioning principles. These are based on my own experiences, from seeing people around me and understanding the problems cricketers face in terms of performance and training. They say we start deteriorating at 30, which is absurd if you've learnt S&C. That is supposed to be your physical peak. I'm at my physical and mental peak. Skill-wise also I'm at my peak.
Did you develop an interest in strength and conditioning because of injuries you had?
I haven't had a lot of injuries. The ones I've had have all been impact injuries, like breaking your finger, or twisting your ankle while fielding on the rope. They haven't been muscular or soft-tissue injuries.
I've always been driven by the question "Why?" If I see something happen, I ask why. Why are things like this? What can I do better? Can I learn the basics of this? If there's something I know that others don't and if it can give me an advantage, why not? That's what got me interested in S&C. Also, when you're on the fringes and not playing a high level of cricket, there aren't a lot of quality professionals around to train you. That also served as motivation - that if I can figure this out myself and do a little bit of studying and learn the basic principles, start experimenting, maybe I can take my game to another level.
What did you ask yourself heading into IPL 2021? Thirty-two wickets in the season, culminating in your India debut - clearly it has been career-defining.
I started asking that question in 2018. After that auction [where he was sold to Delhi Daredevils for his base price of Rs 20 lakhs, about US$31,250 then] I felt dejected. I felt I had no value as a cricketer and that there weren't many people who were interested in bidding for me.
I started thinking about what I could do to make myself valuable. The auction is a marketplace and I'm providing services that people are bidding for, and if people don't want my services, maybe I'm not good enough. So the immediate thought was, how can I be more consistent with bat and ball? How do I put myself in situations where I can win games for the team? Do I have the skills to do that? It's one thing to put yourself in those situations and another to have the skills to back it up.
I realised I could bowl a very good yorker, but I didn't use it in games. What's the point of bowling them superbly in the nets? I started wondering if I could take all that preparation into the game. And if I'm not able to do that, why is that? Then that mental tweak happened and I started figuring out how to allow myself to be freer in the game and express myself more without worrying too much about what is going to happen or whether I'm going to play the next game or get picked for another IPL season. That shift was monumental for me. It allowed me to express whatever skills I had in the game and take on challenges to do well under pressure.
It must have been huge when Royal Challengers Bangalore made you their designated death bowler?
Absolutely. Until 2017, I played as a back-up. If they felt the wicket was slow or the ground was big, I'd get a game. Even if I did well, I'd be dropped for the next few games. So that was an opportunity for me to put into action the plans I had to become a valuable player. Honestly, I didn't expect it to happen, but they must have seen something in me to give me such a massive responsibility. It could have also backfired for them if I'd not done what I did. They took a punt on me and fortunately I was in that space mentally, physically and skill-wise to take on that responsibility.
Things were slightly different in your earlier stint with RCB, from 2012-2015.
They [coaches] always told me I was a confident guy, but the issue I had initially was, I always wanted to figure out and solve problems by myself, so I had this reputation of being a guy who doesn't listen to anyone. Obviously my communication skills weren't great back in the day, so coaches and support staff would take it personally, even though I didn't mean it that way. So I had the reputation of being someone who thinks for himself, knows what he wants to do.
"I was training in Ahmedabad and a parent and their kid approached me. The kid asked, 'What should my dream be?' I said, 'You're 11 years old. You shouldn't have dreams, you should have fun'"
When you go and do in a game what you said you will, they tend to have faith in you. Then they'll be like, "Leave him alone, he will solve his own problems. Provide him with an environment that is supportive. He will give you the performance you need." The kind of season I had in 2021, if you perform like that, no one is going to question you. So a lot of these guys have seen my progress and evolution as a player and person.
How do you look back on your younger self?
Back in the day, at the U-19s and even until I was 22-23, I was a very impatient, immature, and outspoken guy. I had no communication skills. The people in Haryana, especially, saw the real person inside all this, gave me a long rope and allowed me to develop on my own. They were extremely patient with me. There were times where I felt I should be dropped, and I'd tell Anirudh Chaudhry sir [the Haryana Cricket Association boss] that.
He'd be like, "You focus on your game, don't worry about selection." But at the time, I'd play a game thinking, "What am I doing?" I wasn't justifying my selection in the team, but they kept backing me and giving me games, which eventually led to the cricketer that I've become. He always told me: "The amount of work you put in, the amount of intensity you bring, even to the nets or practice games, I haven't seen anybody do that. As long as you keep doing it, it's a matter of understanding your game better, and when you do that, your game will go a couple of notches higher." So he has been a tremendous mentor to me. Even though he hasn't played competitive cricket, he knows the game so well.
The entire system in Haryana has been great for me. When I left Gujarat and went there, I never felt like an outsider. In 2010-11, changing states was a huge deal, it wasn't as easy as it is today. I thought if it didn't work out, my cricket would be over, and I'd pack my bags and go to USA. Fortunately, it worked out.
You've spoken elsewhere about not enjoying the game as a teenager. Can you tell us about that?
A few months back, I was training in Ahmedabad and a parent and their kid approached me. The kid asked, "What should my dream be?" I said, "You're 11 years old. You shouldn't have dreams, you should have fun." I wish someone had told me at that at 17-18, to just go out there, on my first international trip [U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, 2010], have fun and do my best.
I think this is a failure of our grassroots coaching system, that you put so much pressure on young kids. From when they're 12 or 13, you're trying to make them professionals. And that takes the joy out of playing the sport and then it becomes a chore. So you feel over the moon when you do well and buried under the ground when you don't. And then at some point you will burn out.
Did you burn out?
Multiple times. There were instances where I felt I was not good enough to play professional cricket, and then the next day I'd go to the nets and bowl so well and think, "Hey, I'm good enough." And that cycle would keep repeating. So these are the things young children need to learn. How I came out of that has a bit of philosophical aspect to it.
"I had this reputation of being a guy who doesn't listen to anyone. Obviously my communication skills weren't great back in the day, so coaches and support staff would take it personally, even though I didn't mean it that way"
I read quite a bit of philosophy, I'm a huge fan of Carl Sagan, a prominent astrophysicist back in the day, the author of Cosmos. He was a huge influence on me. He has this speech in the video "The Pale Blue Dot", where he talks of how all of civilisation - every person you know and have heard of, everything that has happened in your memory, everything you read - is a small part in the entire universe. It gives you perspective - that what you're doing is significant to you in this moment, significant to your family and friends, but insignificant in the larger scheme of things. The moment you step off the field, Harshal Patel the cricketer is over, what counts is Harshal the person. So I have stopped putting so much value on this, stopped taking pressure that I must do well all the time.
When I started approaching things this way, the fear of failure started fading and I started having more fun on the field. I learnt to enjoy my skills, taking the team out of tough situations and winning from such phases is very joyful. If you look at it in that sense, it's satisfying and rewarding. That is the reward you chase as a professional. That gives me joy. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. I take it on the chin and move on.
You've spent considerable time with Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. What have you learnt from them?
I've been a silent observer of them. I don't believe in asking a lot of questions, just seeing them closely, what their routines are, what their body language is under pressure, how they carry themselves when they do well, how they carry themselves when they don't do well. These are the things I learnt from my first big stint with RCB.
The one important lesson I took from them was, up or down, you stay neutral. Try and be the person you are, don't look to prove anything to anyone, put the team first. Whether you're playing or not playing, contribute in a positive manner. Smile, don't spread negativity. I've seen so many times when you're not playing, it's easy to get bitter. It's easy to think, "I'm better than the guy playing" but when you start thinking like that, you're adding negative energy to the environment, and nobody likes that. So wait for your turn, help in whatever way you can, put the team first, do everything for the greater cause - which is to contribute to the success of the team. If you do that, people will realise: this guy is a positive influence. When you don't do well, these are the things that go in your favour.
From 2012 to 2014, I didn't have a single great IPL. I played on and off but was still picked every year. From 2016 to 2020 also I played on and off, but I continue to have the same mentality - of putting myself after the team. That attitude carried me in the team.
So the Harshal who got hit for 37 off one over against Chennai Super Kings and the Harshal who took a hat-trick against Mumbai had the same mindset. Is it easier said than done?
It's all about practice. I picked up the guitar recently. I was terrible on the first day. I'm getting better now. You must practise this mentality, it's not easy. The longer you do it, the better you're going to get at it.
Against CSK, it was just one bad over. I was 3 for 14 off three overs before that massacre from Ravindra Jadeja. Soon after that, against Delhi Capitals, I bowled two overs at the death. [Shimron] Hetmyer and Rishabh [Pant] were batting, and in the penultimate over, I got my execution right and left 14 for [Mohammed] Siraj to defend. If I had the mentality that someone hit 37 off me, I'm not good enough, I wouldn't have been able to execute. It was just one bad over of execution and the other guy didn't miss a single bad ball. You must credit the batter and move on when something like that happens.
Talking of Delhi Capitals, considering how well everyone spoke of you, Ricky Ponting in particular, it must have been disappointing to have been let go after playing three seasons for them, from 2018 to 2020?
I always believe whatever happens in the IPL, whether someone retains you or lets you go, you shouldn't take it personally. Those decisions aren't taken based on whether they like you as a person or not. It's all about how you can contribute in that set-up, and if they felt you can't contribute the way they want you to, then you're not valuable to them anymore and you're being traded to a team that has asked for you and has a role for you.
"I've seen so many times when you're not playing, it's easy to get bitter. It's easy to think, "I'm better than the guy playing" but when you start thinking like that, you're adding negative energy to the environment, and nobody likes that"
I mean, I looked at it as a great opportunity. Every time something like this happens, there's uncertainty. You can hope for the best and see how you can contribute best. The moment I was traded, Virat messaged me saying, "You're going to play all the games." That gave me a lot of confidence - that here's a captain who is giving you that assurance. I had enough confidence that if I got opportunities, I'd make the most of it.
Few bowlers deliver that dipping yorker the way you do. How much work has gone into the making of that delivery?
That slower ball always came out of my hand really well. The one thing I picked from the likes of Dwayne Bravo is the significant difference between his fast ball and slower variation. Most bowlers have a difference of 15-17kph. But with Bravo, his fast ball is in the range of 130kph and his slower balls go down to 103-104kph. That is a massive drop in speed. I have a similar fast arm speed like him, so I thought if he can bowl that, why can't I? It's not just a great wicket-taking ball for me but one I can shut down overs with. If I bowl a fast yorker, you have more chances of errors, and if the batsman gets an inside edge or outside edge, it can always go to the boundary. So I use that dipping yorker as an option to close out overs. Because there's so little pace on it, the batsman must do everything. He can't get away with hitting with an outside or inside edge. It's a very useful delivery and quite a lot of work has gone into developing that and being consistent at that under pressure.
Do you practise this variation a lot in the nets?
I don't bowl that a lot to batters because eventually you're going to have to face them in some other team, so I try and shield it as much as I can. The more you can see it out of the bowler's hand, the more comfortable you become with it. So when I do a lot of single-wicket practice, I try and bowl that a lot.
When did you consciously start working to become a better batter?
It's one more opportunity to contribute. If I couldn't contribute with the ball, if I didn't bat, the only other option is to contribute to the field. If I bat, I can go and get a seven-ball 15 or ten-ball 20, which can make a massive difference. Timing the ball has always come naturally to me. I won't say that with bowling. Swing came naturally to me, but the white ball doesn't swing anymore, especially at the time [in the game] I bowl. That skill of swing is useful only with the red ball.
Batting and hitting sixes came naturally, and my hand speed is powerful, so I thought, why not work on it and get to a stage where I'm confident of executing it under pressure. It's just one of those things, when I did it well [in 2021], people started asking, "How did this guy become so good suddenly?" It's not a sudden improvement. I've been doing well since 2019, and the same realisation is going to happen with my batting, a few knocks will surprise people. If I get hold of a spinner on his bad day, I can hit sixes.
The India debut finally came when you were a few days short of 31, on the back of two good domestic seasons and IPL. Do you remember the moment you got the call?
Honestly, only with domestic performances it's difficult to get the call-up. After I had an IPL like that, there was a thought that this could happen, but to be honest, I'd have been fine even if I wasn't picked, because I've trained myself to think like that. I enjoy the opportunity to play high-quality cricket, whether it's at IPL, domestic or international level. Selection is for selectors to give and theirs to take away. I always feel I don't want to be the person who complains about selection. When it happened, I was kept in the loop throughout the process - they asked for my availability, fitness, so I knew it would happen.
I was in the shower. I'd just finished the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s in Baroda and had come home. Then my phone was going off, and I checked the BCCI Twitter feed to find my name in the T20I squad for the New Zealand series. It felt great. It was a reward for my persistence for the last ten years. It's a stamp of validation: that we think you're good enough to play.
Are you the most content you have ever been now?
I'm very content with whatever has happened in my career. If someone told me I can't play cricket anymore, I'd be extremely satisfied with what I've done. I've not just played the game I love for ten years at the professional level, I've learnt so many life lessons. That's something I'm grateful for. The friends I've made, the memories - absolutely no complaints. I haven't gone to college, but all my education has been paid for and I've earned money from it. I can't get a better deal than this.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo