Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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In 2017, when Hrishikesh Kanitkar, a member of Rising Pune Supergiant's coaching staff, recommended Washington Sundar as a replacement for the injured R Ashwin, it was assumed a batting allrounder would be replacing a frontline spinner. Until then, Washington was a top-order bat in age-group cricket, and for India too at the 2016 Under-19 World Cup. Kanitkar, though, who also coached Tamil Nadu back then, had seen something in Washington's bowling that he felt was of value in T20 cricket.
While Washington wouldn't take wickets by the truckload, he would keep things tight. In the Vijay Hazare Trophy that Tamil Nadu won that season, Washington managed just four wickets, but his economy of 3.27 across six games showed his value. These traits served him well in his maiden IPL season, where he was one of the key figures in Pune's run to the final. In 11 innings, he conceded just 6.16 runs per over bowling largely in the powerplay, and took eight wickets.
But that is in the past. Now, Washington's game is in the midst of a transformation that has come about courtesy a lot of awareness of his craft as well as the ability to read situations better. From being an offspinner who bowled flat and fast, looking to largely be restrictive as a new-ball bowler in the powerplay, he is working on conditioning himself to be an all-weather bowler.
In T20s, the restrictive bowler in him takes over. He bowls wicket-to-wicket, attacks the stumps a lot more and looks to keep a lid on the scoring. In the longer formats, he has started looking to use a whole lot of tricks. He varies his pace, slows the ball up a lot more, bowls into the pitch to allow the ball to break, and occasionally tempts batters with flight, like he did on his return to India's XI after nearly a year, during Sunday's ODI against West Indies.
Incidentally, his previous international fixture prior to Sunday was also in Ahmedabad, in March last year. Then, on a dewy evening where the ball turned into a soap bar every time it went into the outfield, he bowled just one wicketless over for 13. A finger injury in the summer against England set him back by four months, which meant he wasn't fit enough to be picked for the T20 World Cup in October-November. When he was finally ready to play, he tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the team management to leave him out of the ODIs in South Africa.
His absence seemed to have affected India's team balance. Ashwin, who he has replaced now, made an ODI return for that South Africa series after four years. While he didn't do too badly, he wasn't at his most effective either. India collapsed twice in three games, with the lower order's batting abilities tested to the hilt. This is where the Washington void was amplified even more - because of what he brings to the table as a whole package: neat, no-frills off spin and handy, lower-middle-order batting.
On Sunday, Rohit Sharma elected to bowl hoping for dew to make a difference while chasing. This gave the spinners a better opportunity to come into their own. Washington was brought into the attack in the eighth over, and it took him just one delivery to come into the game. By beating Darren Bravo with sharp turn that spun across the bat face, he immediately got the batter thinking. Two balls later in the same over, he beat Bravo again with a teasing, loopy delivery that spun sharply to beat his forward stab. Then he went wider of the crease and bowled middle and off to beat Bravo with a different trajectory.
By the time Washington came on for his second over, Bravo was already starting to become edgy. At the first sign of flight, he lashed one through the covers. Not wanting to become overly predictable, Washington went back to length deliveries for the rest of the over. The rewards for all the questions he had asked in the previous two overs were reaped in his third over.
He beat Brandon King with the only delivery he would bowl to him in the game. By bowling one into the pitch and getting it to turn and bounce, he had King chip a catch to midwicket. Then after beating Bravo for the nth time with sharp turn, he had his man lbw. Where a length delivery stopped on King, the one to Bravo skidded through a touch to beat the inside edge and crash into the pad. After long deliberations, India reviewed and replays showed the ball would have hit the stumps. Three overs in, Washington had taken out two form batters to have West Indies in trouble.
It was those early incisions that helped Yuzvendra Chahal to come into his own at the other end. For the rest of the afternoon, Washington continued to vary his pace nicely, even when he kept hitting good length or thereabouts: 51 of his 54 deliveries landed around this spot. The wickets he got in his first spell were brought about by subtle changes in pace over lengths. It's one thing to get a surface that aids spin, it's another to be able to use it to your advantage, as Washington did in picking 3 for 30 upon his return to international cricket. His addition has already lent a better balance to India's XI.
India is yearning for a batter from the top six who can bowl. Washington is by no means a finished product with the bat, but he's just 22 and has shown enough potential to be able to make the climb up the order. If he can continue to do that while maintaining the same effectiveness with the ball, the possibilities are endless.