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Match Analysis

Washington Sundar: A batsman blossoming in a bubble of serene self-assurance

He may have gained wider attention as a clever, restrictive offspinner in T20s, but he has always been a batsman first

Time. Gifted batsmen always seem to have more of it.
On Friday, James Anderson bowled a perfectly good ball to Washington Sundar: angling in from around the wicket, pitching on a good length, heading towards off stump.
Anderson had just dismissed Rishabh Pant, who'd given him an absolute hammering during this spell with the second new ball. The worst, Anderson must have felt, was now over, and he could look forward to ending his spell in an atmosphere of peace and quiet.
As if.
It was a perfectly good ball, and Sundar hit it for four. He stood there, leaning slightly forward, and waited. If you have an extra split-second, why not enjoy it? He waited, let the ball come to him, and drove it to the right of mid-off, finishing with his front elbow pointing up.
Time. So much time.
Sundar had walked in with India 146 for 6 in reply to England's 205. Since then he had batted in a bubble of serene self-assurance, never looking hurried against pace or spin, moving his feet economically but decisively at all times, getting right behind the line and right on top of the short ball, and moving assuredly onto the front foot whenever it was pitched up. His shots were full of pleasingly straight lines at most times, but every now and then there was a moment of opportunism that spoke of his white-ball nous: a chip over extra-cover off Dom Bess' offspin when he was still only on 7, a both-feet-off-the-ground flay over gully when Ben Stokes bowled with the second new ball.
All this from No. 8, but none of it was in any way unexpected. Every expectation had been met and exceeded at the Gabba in January, then promptly reassessed.
This was no No. 8. This was a top-order batsman who happened to be batting at No. 8.
On Saturday, Sundar was batting on 96. A month ago in Chennai, he had run out of partners when he was 15 short of a maiden Test hundred. Now there seemed to be little threat of a repeat. India had three wickets remaining, and the pair in the middle, Sundar and Axar Patel, had put on 106.
Then, within the space of five balls, India were all out. Sundar watched the last four balls from the non-striker's end. After the last wicket fell, the producers cut to his reaction. There was no perceptible change in his expression - he always seems to gaze placidly into the middle distance, keeping his thoughts to himself - but was there a brief softening around the eyelids? Did he turn away and walk back to the dressing room a little more urgently than he otherwise might have?
Who can say?
Later in the afternoon, when India had wrapped up victory, Star Sports interviewed Sundar pitch-side.
"No, no. Not at all disappointed," he said, when asked the inevitable question. "When it's the right time for me to get a hundred, it'll come, I feel, and yes, definitely very, very happy to have contributed, especially in those couple of innings, and you know, any way I could contribute to the team, and if the team could succeed out of that, I'm the happiest person."
Time. When it's the right time, it'll come. And at 21, there's so much time stretching out before Sundar.
But then again, when will his time come next? A freakish injury crisis gave him his chance in Test cricket, at a time when he hadn't played a first-class match in more than three years. He has grabbed that chance as well as anyone could have, but when everyone is fit again, where will Sundar fit in this India line-up?
At this moment, Sundar's Test record encapsulates exactly what he is: three fifties in six innings, two of them unbeaten, and six wickets in four Tests at an average of 49.83. He may have gained wider attention as a clever, restrictive offspinner in T20 cricket, but he has always been a batsman first, whether as a 12-year-old playing league cricket in Chennai or as a Test cricketer at 21.
R Ashwin, who began life as a top-order batsman before offspin came to define him, has watched a lot of Sundar - both in league cricket and as his Tamil Nadu team-mate.
"Washy bowled in some of the IPL franchises, and he shot to fame because of his bowling in the powerplay and all that, [but] it's quite surprising that people don't recognise that he grew up all his life as a batsman who can bowl," Ashwin said during his post-match press conference on Saturday. "I'm not surprised at all at his batting ability. He works really hard on his batting, in fact to a point where we sometimes have discussions around how he should bowl more as well. He loves his batting, he's innately a batsman, so I'm not surprised at all. He's quite a special batsman."
At 21, there are so many directions in which Sundar's career could evolve. Two of them are represented by two first-choice Test cricketers who will soon return from injury: Hanuma Vihari, a specialist middle-order batsman who bowls a bit of offspin, and Ravindra Jadeja, a genuine spin-bowling allrounder.
In the long term, if Sundar can develop his offspin to the point where he bowls accurately at his current pace while giving the ball a bigger rip, he has the potential to turn into a proper allrounder. But at this stage, his game seems closer to Vihari's than Jadeja's.
Even so, it's unlikely he'll supplant Vihari in India's squad (though he could be part of it alongside him) when they begin their next assignment, a long stretch of Test matches in England. As good as he is, it's unlikely just yet that India will play Sundar in a situation where they want a sixth specialist batsman away from home, when their first-choice option is available.
But in the long term, the possibilities are endless. When asked what his advice to Sundar would be when he goes back and plays for Tamil Nadu again, Ashwin suggested he should bat up the order as often as possible.
"I'm not in any position to tell Washy to go open, or bat at three," Ashwin said. "But ideally, if there's an upcoming talent like him, it makes logical sense when he goes back to his state team, for him to bat at No. 3 or No. 4. In fact, Washy is an opening bat. I think he should go back to first-class cricket and probably start opening or batting at three. As I already said earlier, Washy is a semma (tremendous) batsman, there's no doubt about it."
There's no doubt at all, but for the moment Sundar will have to wait just a little longer for another tilt at a Test hundred. He has plenty of time.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo