Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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No room to cut. No space to pull. No loop to step out to. No release shot to be had.
It's what Washington Sundar doesn't let batsmen do that perhaps is a key to understanding his effectiveness. Because he is trying to do one thing to the batsman: make him practice an over of denial.
It was Sachin Tendulkar who succinctly summed up the secret to Sundar's effectiveness with the observation that "his ability to keep watching the batsman's feet till the last moment and adjust his line and length is a special ability."
Sounds simple enough in theory, but it's a skill fiendishly difficult to master. Which is why Sundar - an offspinner with no extravagant turn, no 'doosra', no carom ball, not even teasing flight - sits atop the economy rate charts in IPL 2020. His conventional economy rate is 4.90 in this tournament, a figure that would be great in ODIs and which is astounding in T20s. The only one who has a lower rate is Royal Challengers Bangalore team-mate Chris Morris, who has bowled only eight overs at the time of writing.
Sundar's Smart Economy, as calculated by ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats which take into account the batsmen and period of play in which he bowls, is a ridiculous 1.97. No filters needed about 'given a minimum of X overs bowled'. Sundar has the lowest Smart Economy of any bowler in the IPL. How good is that? Rashid Khan is at 3.51 and Jofra Archer at 4.60.
It's not just releasing the ball late. It's a form of mind reading.
"If you're going to keep looking at the batsman's feet you will sort of get a hint about what he's trying to do. If you can pick up that hint as early as possible, before you release the ball, then it's going to help you," Sundar says. "It's also going to help you do what he doesn't want you to do. It's all about releasing the ball as late as possible and also sort of staring at his feet all the time.
"I would like to have clarity at the top of my mark, but I would also want to guess what the batsman is doing during my run up. If I sense he is trying to do something different, I would bowl the ball where he doesn't want me to bowl. That is why I always look at the batsman's feet till the last moment. I am also conscious of releasing the ball as late as possible so I can react to what the batsman is doing."
And, here's the thing, it's not new. Sundar has had plenty of success in the past in the IPL as well as for India, doing exactly this. As far back as 2017, when he grabbed attention playing for the Rising Pune Supergiant, he had the ability to read what the batsman was doing and bowl where he didn't want the ball to be. Not just any batsman either. David Warner faced Sundar for 15 balls in the bowler's debut season in one match, and could take only 17 off him, all of it in the powerplay.
"At the loading, you need to watch the batsmen's feet pretty well and you have to change accordingly. At the loading, you will know if he is moving to switch-hit," Sundar had told ESPNcricinfo then, describing how he had foiled Warner's switch-hit plans. "He was expecting me to bowl length and on middle and leg. Because I had kept bowling that line. But I bowled outside off. He was not expecting it. So he couldn't connect."
Sundar is not just 'consistent' in the traditional sense of the word of landing the ball on a penny all day long. He can also land the ball on a penny whose position on the pitch changes according to what the batsman is doing. Not shot enough to cut or pull. Not full enough to sweep or drive. Not slow enough that the batsman can re-adjust and create width afresh. And delivered with a high-arm action from a naturally tall man, which creates a bounce that is different from traditional offspinners.
He has bowled 22 overs so far in this IPL, 11 in the powerplay and 11 in the middle overs. That powerplay figure is already more than he had bowled for the Royal Challengers across 2018 and 2019 combined (seven overs in the powerplay in the last two IPL seasons combined). And each time this year, he has hit that elusive hard length that batsmen aren't able to get away. The target area varies slightly depending on whether he's bowling with only two fielders out or with more protection, but the results have been the same. More than 40% of his balls have either been flicked or defended: no space for the expansive shots.
The first over he bowled in the powerplay this season was to perhaps the competition's most intimidating batting outfit, the Mumbai Indians. He was bowling to Rohit Sharma, the lord of the pull shot, with a new ball. It was at Dubai, with the long boundary on the right-hander's legside, with Sundar immediately settling into hard lengths. But it was still to a batsman who can make any boundary on any ground seem inadequate. Sundar almost thought he was headed that way too.
"Honestly, he's someone who hits all around the ground. I just wanted to keep things simple and just hit the hard lengths, which I knew he might be able to hit for a four or six, but I just wanted to keep that length going," Sundar says. "I bowled three dot balls to start with and I think that was very good and helped me take that wicket off the fourth ball. The moment he hit that shot, it actually came from the middle of the bat and I thought it's going to go out of the stadium, but it didn't."
Three dot balls and the wicket of Rohit Sharma could be the title of Sundar's IPL 2020 memoir, until now at least. That match onwards - figures of 4-0-12-1 in a 201 meets 201 contest - he was regularly given the ball in the powerplay, though he proved equally adept at giving Virat Kohli control in the middle overs.
Sundar's art can be deceptively explained as 'keeping things simple', but keeping things simple requires dollops of skill and nous, and the ability to keep a calm head and clear plans regardless. It's not easy to 'keep things simple'.
"As a bowler you should know when to do what," he says. "You should know when to contain and when to not give boundaries and just be happy with giving singles. Also you should know when to attack, that even if you give a boundary in this over it's okay but getting one wicket for the team is going to be very helpful. In the powerplay you can't do a lot of experiments or you can't really bowl to get a wicket. But probably in the middle overs when you know that you've got a few more fielders to play with, you definitely can go for a wicket - one or two balls, not all the balls."
It takes a remarkably level-headed acknowledgment of his own skills and an understanding of the dynamics of T20 cricket to be able to say, 'you can go for a wicket - one or two balls, not all the balls'. And it comes on the back of dedicated practice too in the nets and detailed planning off the field.
"For example, if I bowl 30 minutes at the nets, I will bowl 20-25 minutes in a powerplay scenario," Sundar says. "I will tell the batsman what the field is going to be like. I will also think where I am going to bowl in the powerplay. Five to ten minutes, I will give myself the time to bowl in the back end, but most of the time I prepare myself to bowl in the powerplay.
"Honestly, I've been doing my homework very well and the management has been helping me. So far I've not seen any batsman on the field where I didn't have any idea or didn't have any clarity to bowl to (in the IPL), since I have already planned and already done my homework. It's more to do with the batsmen that I am going to come against and not really the grounds. Of course Sharjah is small, but if you are going to have plans against different batsmen, then you know what you are going to do."
Batsmen also know what Sundar is going to do. The difference is, they have not been able to do anything about it so far.