Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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"I felt I was not good enough to play red-ball cricket anymore."
In February 2019, Haryana allrounder Harshal Patel had doubts about his abilities in long-form cricket. He had taken only 23 wickets from nine games in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season. After Haryana's regular captain, Mohit Sharma, was sidelined with a bad back midway through the tournament, Patel was handed the dual responsibility of leading the side and its bowling attack. That compounded his dejection when he failed to pick up wickets, and made him feel he was letting his side down.
Haryana finished the season with three wins, two draws and four losses, including an innings defeat to Assam. They were fifth among the ten teams in Group C.
"I had always enjoyed playing red-ball cricket, so my performance that season was something that bothered me a lot," Patel says. "As a team, we were losing against weaker sides, by an innings at times, and that hurt even more. Being the main fast bowler of the team, I felt if I cannot deliver, I should start thinking whether I am good enough to play red-ball cricket anymore."
He missed the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy that came next, due to a tear in one of his glutes, but recovered in time to join the Delhi Capitals for the IPL, where, after being benched for the first two games, he had figures of 2 for 40 and none for 37 in the next two. "It didn't show in my figures but I was pretty confident my performance was going to get significantly better," Patel says. Unfortunately, his campaign was cut short when he fractured his hand, which added to his frustrations.
Fast forward to now and Patel has not only been stellar in this season's Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, he also seems to have got his confidence back with the red ball. In the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy, he took 52 wickets in nine games, breaking left-arm spinner Rajinder Goel's 36-year-old record for the most wickets in a season for Haryana.
The turnaround didn't come about by chance.
Something the Capitals' coach, Ricky Ponting, said to Patel during last year's IPL provided a lightbulb moment.
"Ricky told me that I was brilliant at preparation but needed to get better at performance," Patel says. "That sort of cleared things for me because I always felt I was pretty confident in practice but probably 10% less confident in the match. On the field, I was getting worried about not being able to execute my plans.
"He talked about visualising what might happen in the game and going through those scenarios in the head. If you are prepared for all those scenarios, then you are more likely to succeed and not succumb to the pressure."
While Patel's 2019 IPL ended prematurely and he started the next domestic season with an indifferent Vijay Hazare Trophy, he reaped the benefits of the new-found wisdom in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. His 19 wickets at an economy of 7.04 were the joint second most in the tournament, one fewer than the table-topper, R Sai Kishore, took. Patel shone with the bat too, making 374 runs at an average of 31.16 and a strike rate of 165.48.
He opens the innings for Haryana in T20s, where his primary job is to take the pressure off other batsmen by scoring quickly. This season, though, he tweaked his approach. "Earlier I used to try smacking every single ball, but now I have realised that's not sustainable. So I tried to play more low-risk shots"
Patel emphasises range-hitting during training, but he is looking to be calculating too. "I know I am not Andre Russell that I can hit every ball out of the ground. So I need to understand what areas bowlers will try to bowl to me and how I can exploit that without taking too many risks. For example, I never used to play the cut, but now I am pretty confident playing it."
He has been watching Virat Kohli as well. "If you see what he does, it is pretty exceptional," Patel says. "Like, where there is a single, you try for two, where there is a double, you push for three. If you are fit enough and can do that over a period of, say, five, seven, ten overs, you end up adding probably another eight to ten runs to your tally. Now that is a massive, massive margin. That's a margin of victory and defeat. So that's something I have incorporated into my game."
When it comes to his primary trade, bowling, he has been experimenting with a number of slower balls. "I have been trying the knuckleball but it hasn't worked for me so far," he says. "I have a brilliant offcutter which I am pretty confident of bowling to right-handers, to left-handers, with the new ball, with the old ball, fuller, shorter. I can bowl that ball in probably 15 different ways. I used to bowl a really good back-of-the-hand slower ball as well. I stopped bowling that because I was pretty confident of my offcutter, but now I have started bowling it again."
After the struggles of the previous Ranji season, Patel sat down to figure out what exactly was going wrong with his bowling. "When you are not bowling well, you try to make a lot of adjustments without having the patience to bowl in the channel throughout the day," he says.
Along with the likes Jaydev Unadkat, Saurashtra's strike bowler and captain, Patel stands out as one of the sharper minds in Indian domestic cricket. Self-analysis has helped him keep improving.
"I watched every single ball I bowled in the previous season. I made a pitch map of that and realised I was lacking consistency. The pattern showed that I was bowling too full, and when I tried to correct that, I was straying on the pads."
To make sure he set that right, Patel went back to the basics.
"I realised I didn't need any technical changes. I told myself I was just gonna bowl good length at fourth stump. Every single thing I did during practice was targeted towards achieving consistency. I recorded every single ball from practice sessions and tried to achieve at least 80-85% accuracy."
His efforts paid off. Among the bowlers from the Elite Group teams who took at least 30 wickets, no one struck as frequently as Patel (every 27.1 balls) this season, while only Unadkat (13.23) got his wickets cheaper than Patel's 14.48. He had his best batting season too, tallying 292 runs at 22.46, with two half-centuries.
Haryana play their home games in Lahli, considered the fastest track in India, but Patel says his performances haven't had much to do with the conditions. "People think you just go bowl in Lahli and you get wickets," he says. "It's not like that. Last season I had 23 wickets from nine games. I played five of those games in Lahli. If you don't bowl well, you don't pick up wickets anywhere.
"I know when I am bowling well and when I'm not. Of course, when you get 52 wickets, sometimes you are gonna get wickets off bad balls, and that happens everywhere. The only important thing for me is whether I bowled well, whether I won the game for the team, whether I contributed to the team's victory. That's my only gauge to measure how I performed."
"Earlier, once my spell was over, I used to hang out at fine leg and not worry about a thing."
But captaincy has helped Patel enhance his overall awareness during games, just like it has with Unadkat. "As a captain you have to be present all the time," he says. "Not only be present in the game, you also have to be proactive. You need to make decisions and every decision you make has consequences."
Haryana narrowly missed out on qualifying for the knockouts, but Patel has been trying to develop his leadership skills, using methods not many young Indian cricketers might adopt. "I have read a lot of leadership books - The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Code of Trust. Then the all-time great book by Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. There's another book - by Jocko Willink, a former US Navy SEAL - called Extreme Ownership, which is something I strongly believe in: that everything that happens around you is your responsibility."
Patel is a man of diverse interests. If he was not a cricketer, he says he would have taken up medicine. His other passion is strength and conditioning, which he wants to take up professionally after retirement. He also wants to learn to surf and scuba dive, and get into mountaineering.
It doesn't end there. "The other day I was watching Cosmos, and I was like, 'I want to be an astronomer.' Then I realised I knew little about maths beyond basic arithmetic. I cannot even think of stuff like calculus or probability.
"But I believe you don't have to be formally educated to be educated. If you are genuinely curious about something, there is enough information on the internet. There are enough free courses, enough paid courses, that you can opt for.
"I was desperate to learn guitar. So I followed a few online lessons. But it requires a lot of dedication, plus you need to be okay with failing, and at the moment I am okay with failing at very few things."
This thirst for knowledge, to have new pursuits, might make Patel come across as lacking focus. The truth is, he is anything but. "Right now my only priority is to become the best cricketer I can be."