Harshal Patel rises from doing bit-part roles to being main man
His maiden IPL five-for is a reward for the new dimensions he's added to his bowling
When Harshal Patel stood with arms aloft, looking at the skies, after getting his fifth wicket in the innings, it felt like a release. Indian players who haven't played international cricket yet do have their moments to shine in the IPL, but it's rare for someone who hasn't been a regular in IPL XIs to have a moment quite as stunningly successful as Patel did.
Since 2016, he had played a total of only 18 IPL games - barely a season's worth spread across five years. And yet, traded back to the Royal Challengers Bangalore after three years with the Delhi Capitals, Patel responded by taking 5 for 27, the IPL's first-ever five-wicket haul against the best T20 side in the business - the Mumbai Indians.
What made Patel's feat impressive was not just the opponents it came against, but the manner it was achieved in and the batsmen he conquered. Together, Ishan Kishan, Hardik Pandya, Kieron Pollard and Krunal Pandya form the most lethal middle order in the IPL. There is no set of batsmen in any other side manning positions four to seven who can match up to this quartet, each one demonstrably capable of match-winning innings on their own.
Patel not only dismissed each one of them, he did it in ways that left no doubt that the bowler had won the battle against the batsmen. He did it by bowling yorkers that tailed in late with reverse swing, by changes of pace that the batsmen failed to detect and thus hit the ball where he wanted them to. Crucially, he did it at the death, where Mumbai have devastated and pulverised opponents, oftentimes a combination of these four doing the heavy hitting.
Death bowling was expected to be the Royal Challengers' biggest gap in IPL 2021, and they were up against the most fearsome death-overs batting line-up in the competition. Three of Patel's overs were held back for the death, and before he began his second spell, ESPNcricinfo's Forecaster pegged Mumbai's expected total at 182, with five overs to go. That it ended up on 159 instead was entirely due to Patel.
"When we gathered for the first camp there was a very clear instruction to me that I'm going to bowl at least two overs at the death," Patel said at the post-match press conference. "That gave me a lot of clarity and confidence to work on my skills and develop plans against the batters I'm going to face in the death overs in various teams. It made my preparation a lot more concise."
The slower ball is something Patel has had for a long time. In fact he had two varieties, an off-cutter and one from the back of the hand. When he was told that he would be filling up the Royal Challengers' death bowling gap, he set to work to develop the yorker too.
"My slower balls have been my biggest strength for almost ten years now and the yorker is something I've been working on," he said. "If you need to bowl in the death overs you definitely have to rely on the yorker. You can't just keep bowling length balls and slower balls, people are going to line that up. It's important to have that one delivery which can get the batsman off strike. It gives you options at the death.
"My yorker is something I've been bowling for a long time but I was not confident enough to take that into the game. But now, in the last 15-20 days I made sure I put myself in situations where I have to bowl a yorker and get confident at it."
His captain, Virat Kohli, was in no doubt about the quality of Patel's spell. "The last six overs for us, probably the best we've ever had," Kohli told Star Sports at the post-match presentation. "I think his spell was the difference in containing those 20-25 runs at the end. He is going to be (our designated death bowler). And he's relishing the responsibility. Very confident of what he wants to bring to the table, and as captain you want guys with clarity, confidence.
"The wickets that he got weren't fluke wickets, he actually wanted the guys to hit where they ended up getting caught. That was the hallmark of his game, because he was very clear in what he wanted to do."
The pitch at Chepauk was uniquely conducive to Patel's bowling too, but none of what he has achieved has been a fluke. In 2019-20, Patel went on a tear through India's domestic circuit, playing three formats back to back and achieving the following: in nine first-class games, 292 runs at an average of 22.46 and 52 wickets at an average of 14.48 and a strike rate of 27.1. In eight List A games, 39 runs at 5.57 and 10 wickets at 19.80 and an economy rate of 5.07. In 12 T20 games, 374 runs at an average of 31.16 and a strike rate of 165.48, to go with 19 wickets at an average of 15.94 and an economy of 7.04.
The tally of runs in List A makes it seem authentic, because otherwise, these are returns more suited to scripting rooms than playing fields. But that's exactly what Patel did. He had an okayish start with the Vijay Hazare Trophy 50-over games, caught fire when the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 matches took place, and continued to scorch the field during the subsequent Ranji Trophy. And he did it while leading his state, Haryana.
It should have been the launchpad to bigger and better, but as soon as the Ranji Trophy was done, Covid-19 struck. Instead of carrying that red-hot form into the IPL that was scheduled next, Patel had to endure a lull like the rest of the world. When IPL 2020 finally happened, he linked up with the Delhi Capitals, but could get only five games for them. The Capitals having gone with a strategy of two overseas pacers in Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje meant the space for an Indian seamer was constrained.
It's the lot of domestic cricketers in India. The overwhelming riches of talent that gather at the IPL mean that you will most likely be considered for bit-part roles, even if you come in on the back of a season that Patel had. Until you break through with that blockbuster season which drags you from the footlights to the limelight. Patel is not there yet, but with his first game, he's given himself the opportunity of rising beyond bit-part roles.
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo