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Defensive Deshpande levels up to fill CSK's Bravo role

Time and time again this season, he is proving his doubters wrong with his control and variations

Deivarayan Muthu
Jasprit Bumrah, Tushar Deshpande and T Natarajan. These are the three best Indian seamers, in terms of economy rate (min 150 balls) in IPL 2024.
Tushar, really?
Indeed, Deshpande, who had leaked runs at almost ten an over last season, has now brought his economy rate down to 8.65 in a season where average scores and run rates have shot through the roof.
In such a season where even Chennai Super Kings have chopped and changed, the uncapped Deshpande is the only bowler to have played all nine games for them so far. Because he keeps levelling up.
In IPL 2021, Deshpande joined CSK as a net bowler. Having already played for Delhi Capitals, it was actually a stepdown for him. In three seasons at CSK, however, Deshpande has grown to become one of the main bowlers for them. Deshpande, like his franchise and Mumbai team-mate Shardul Thakur, has always had wicket-taking ability, but this season he's also improved his defensive bowling so much that he is being picked ahead of the more experienced Thakur.
Dew or no dew, Deshpande's defensive skills have been central to CSK shutting down two big-hitting sides at Chepauk. On a dewy night against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Deshpande almost killed the chase single-handedly by taking three wickets in two overs in the powerplay. He had pushed slower balls wide outside off, creating a sharp angle from over the wicket, to have both Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma caught at sweeper cover, one of only two men out of the boundary.
On another day, both hits might have sailed over Daryl Mitchell for six. But this was Deshpande's day. He executed the plan and even gave Head a send-off. This is the payoff for dealing with immense pressure as a bowler in T20 cricket.
The sample size is fairly small, but Head has managed just 14 off 10 balls that pitched wide outside off stump while being dismissed twice this season, according to ESPNcricinfo's logs. It could've been three dismissals had Moeen Ali not dropped an edge at slip off a wide outswinger from Deepak Chahar when the two teams had met in Hyderabad earlier this month.
In Chennai, CSK stationed one of their best fielders Mitchell on the off-side sweeper boundary, which was marginally bigger than the square boundary on the leg side, and MS Dhoni then adjusted Mitchell into a squarer sweeper position on the off side. On cue, Deshpande had Head losing his shape and carving a catch to Mitchell for 13 off seven balls.
Deshpande came away with 4 for 27, his best IPL figures and the second-best IPL figures for a CSK seamer at Chepauk. But he understands that taking some tap is an occupational hazard of being a T20 bowler.
"I think the most important thing is to be headstrong because knowing the fact that I bowl in the powerplay and death, some days can go against me and I may come out as a hero someday," Deshpande told CSK's social channels. "But on days that go against me, I've to be headstrong because that is the time that can make or break the game.
"Bowling in the tough overs, most importantly you should have confidence and a lot of confidence in yourself. Even if one ball has not gone my way, I've got another five balls or 11 balls to make a difference for my team. So, that's been my mindset always while bowling at the death because that is where the team requires me the most to deliver."
Against Kolkata Knight Riders, when there wasn't as much dew, Deshpande bowled an acceptable wide yorker from around the wicket and had Andre Russell holing out to long-on for a run-a-ball 10. With a packed off-side field, Deshpande had challenged one of the biggest hitters in the world to drag the ball against the angle, into the leg side. But even Russell's power wasn't enough to clear the outfielder.
Bravo used to do it back in the day for CSK. Deny batters the angle and length to access sixes. Deshpande is now doing the job for them, with help from Bravo behind the scenes.
"[He was] a phenomenal bowler in his time and now an absolutely amazing coach to us," Deshpande said of Bravo. "I think to all of us [bowlers] because his experience is so vast. He has played T20 cricket, international cricket in all parts of the world. So, the planning and preparation that he's got and what he gives us is just amazing.
"He always focusses on practice, which we're going to do in the match. So, he emphaises on perfect practice. And we always practice like we're going to bowl in the match, be it death overs, using the angles, according to some batters. So, that's where I can grow as a player and try to be something like Dwayne Bravo."
Nine of Deshpande's ten wickets have come at Chennai this season. Chepauk has traditionally favoured spin but seamers with solid defensive traits have also had considerable success at this venue. Like Bravo of course or Mohit Sharma. Deshpande had started his T20 career as an aggressive bowler in the T20 Mumbai tournament, but is now refashioning himself into a defensive bowler, using the boundary dimensions and pitch conditions to his advantage.
"Tushar has taken to what is needed," CSK coach Stephen Fleming said on Tuesday. "In some ways, he has simplified his game and he's worked with Eric Simons [bowling consultant] and is becoming repetitively good and he has added other parts to it [his game] rather than be everything. He just knows his game well. He's had a good domestic season, and that form has continued for us. Some of his figures this year have been very, very good."
Deshpande, however, still has his limitations - only four other bowlers have conceded more extras (26) than him this IPL and he is far from a safe catcher in the outfield - but his ability to bowl across phases has earned the trust of the team management. He has also given CSK the flexibility to often backload the overs of Matheesha Pathirana and Mustafizur Rahman.
In IPL 2023, Deshpande got an opportunity to play only because of injuries to other bowlers. He ended up as their highest wicket-taker. Despite that, not many expected him to start this season for CSK. He is proving people wrong once again, this time with his control and variations.
Stats updated till the end of KKR vs DC game on April 29

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo