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Sandeep Sharma: 'If I bowl a yorker and it backfires, I'll still take it'

The Rajasthan Royals fast bowler went unsold this IPL season and only found his way back as a replacement player, but he's grabbed the chance to make an impact

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
It was almost another perfect night for Sandeep Sharma, and then it wasn't, Rajasthan Royals vs Sunrisers Hyderabad, IPL 2023, Jaipur, May 7, 2023

"Talk to batters to learn a lot about what they're thinking - that's been a game changer"  •  BCCI

"Learn to bowl yorkers and come next year. Nahi toh, tumhari pitaayi hogi [Or you'll get thrashed by the batters]"
Virender Sehwag was point-blank in his assessment of Sandeep Sharma in 2014.
Sandeep, then all of 21, had gained a reputation as a swing bowler. Two years earlier, he was an Under-19 world champion. Adam Gilchrist, his first IPL captain, at Kings XI Punjab, had spoken glowingly about this young kid who could hoop the ball around.
Sehwag wasn't as generous, and his brutal honesty shook Sandeep. The joy of picking up 18 wickets in a season in which Kings XI finished runners-up quickly dissipated and he was back to the drawing board.
"There's nuance, skill, reading the batter's mind, understanding your own limitations, so many things," Sandeep, now 30, says. It's a day off for him, but Sandeep has got a rundown of plans he wants to immediately discuss with Lasith Malinga, the Rajasthan Royals bowling coach.
This season almost didn't happen for Sandeep. He went unsold at the auction last December, and only found himself in the Royals camp because fast bowler Prasidh Krishna was ruled out of the league this year with a lumbar stress fracture.
"It's all about preparation," Sandeep says. "Whatever I've been able to do so far this season is because of preparation.
"It was a rude shock to go unsold, but I knew if my chance comes, I shouldn't be in a position where I am not considered due to my fitness or rhythm. When I got a call from Sanju Samson [Royals captain] asking if I'd be available to join the camp so that they could assess me, I was very confident. That was what I'd been training for."
In only his second game back, against Chennai Super Kings, Sandeep was thrown into the cauldron. He was defending five runs off the final ball against MS Dhoni. He had just been mowed for two sixes off low full tosses in the over, but he held his composure to deliver a pinpoint yorker and win the Royals their first game at Chepauk since 2008.
"When I stood at the top of my mark, I told myself, 'You've bowled so many yorkers. If you bowl some other ball and it goes for six, you'll be very angry.' If I bowl a yorker and it backfires, I'll still take it because I've worked hard to master it. I had that clarity."
Memories of that night seem quite long ago now. A playoff spot that seemed a very real possibility after six games is suddenly uncertain - Royals are in a mid-table logjam and clutching at straws.
Last week Sandeep thought he had delivered another final-over masterclass, against Sunrisers Hyderabad, his former team. With five to defend, he thought he'd bowled a fine yorker off the very last ball to close out the game when the no-ball siren went off. Sunrisers were gifted a free hit that Abdul Samad walloped for six, and Royals lost a game that was in the bag only moments before.
Deflated as he was by that loss, Sandeep is looking to accentuate the positive. "It's all about how you're made to feel in the team," he says. "They didn't look at me as a replacement player. The camp is positive, the management people are good. Sometimes in a tournament like this, you will lose games from winning positions, you will win games from situations where nobody gives you a chance.
"If you can remain balanced, it helps. Whatever happens, if you have a management that always keeps the dressing room positive, and the vibes are good, it works wonders. That's what this management has done. They've kept things very positive."
Having been called on to bowl the final over often, is it more satisfying to deliver at the death than at other times in the innings?
"No, no, powerplay," he says decisively. "Every team is coming hard at you. If you do well in those overs, it's very satisfying. I've bowled so many overs in this phase; it's very hard, especially if you're playing in Bangalore or Mumbai. On those grounds, it's even harder."
Sandeep's 55 wickets are the second most in the powerplay after Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who he spent considerable time with at Sunrisers. This, Sandeep believes, has led to a perception that he is largely a powerplay specialist.
"In the first five years with Kings XI, I mostly bowled two overs upfront and two at the death. But when I moved to Sunrisers, Bhuvneshwar was at his peak, we had Siddarth Kaul, Khaleel Ahmed, T Natarajan. Then there was Rashid Khan, who would invariably come into the game in the second half.
"Over time this perception [of being a new-ball specialist] kept getting stronger, even though at a personal level I was as confident of delivering in the death as I was with the new ball. This year, I've been fine; I won't say I've been great. It's just that the death bowlers ahead of me in the queue were so good that I didn't have a chance then. I'm getting those chances now."
He hasn't always had things easy. There have been back injuries and shoulder problems that have hampered his career. It's hard to remember now, but he is an India international, having featured in two T20Is on the tour of Zimbabwe in 2015. He returned from that tour to a world of X-rays, scans and rehab schedules after a shoulder injury left him on the sidelines.
Luckily for him, Bharat Arun and R Sridhar, India's bowling and fielding coaches until not long ago, were just a call away. They had worked with Sandeep during his formative years at the National Cricket Academy and had been coaches of the Under-19 World Cup-winning class of 2012 of which Sandeep had been a key member.
"With bowling, I discuss everything with B Arun," Sandeep says. "Whenever I've been down mentally, I've called R Sridhar. He always reaffirmed positivity. Slowly it went into my head that I should not get disheartened with what I don't have, and I should look at it the other way, where I need to make sure I perform with what I have. That mindset came in and I feel I've done fine with the limited resources I've had in my bowling."
So what went wrong?
"The muscle in my bowling arm lost its mobility and strength," he says. "After surgery, I lost more than 10kph pace. Just to bring it back to 130 klicks, it took me a good four-five years. But I had to be in this league and play cricket. I had to do things with my bowling to give me an edge, because I had to overcome lack of pace.
"So I started developing variations like the knuckleball, slower bouncer. I worked really hard on my yorker. Even at 125kph, if you can nail it, it's still a hard ball to hit. I worked more and more on execution. I feel now I'm back to that old rhythm, can feel within the next year I'll be back to 135kph."
Sandeep says he feels "blessed and lucky" to spend considerable time talking to Malinga. "He's given me a perspective that's hard to find," he explains. "It's important to read batters, what they're trying to do, what they're thinking. Mali sir talks about that as well. There are very few coaches who talk about those things.
"In T20 cricket if a batter is thinking you're going to bowl this [particular] ball, you should execute that perfectly. The other way around is, if the batter is thinking something and you end up doing something else, even if it is a bad delivery, you sometimes end up escaping. It's about reading batsmen, what they're trying to do, and if you can fox them, that's very important. I'm trying to learn that art from him."
Sandeep cites an example from earlier in the season, in the Gujarat Titans vs Delhi Capitals match, when Ishant Sharma outfoxed Rahul Tewatia in the final over after Tewatia had dispatched Anrich Nortje for three consecutive sixes the previous over. Ishant had set fields for the wide yorker but dug one into the pitch to cramp Tewatia and had him caught at cover.
"Tewatia's initial movement seemed as if he was lining up to play a scoop, but he was slightly late on a slower length ball that dug in, just because Ishant played with his mind," Sandeep explains. "That's how I read it while watching it on TV.
"In our own game against Lucknow Super Giants, I set fields for a slower ball or yorker, but ended up bowling a bouncer to dismiss Marcus Stoinis. He didn't expect it, and Mali sir later said no one in our dugout expected that either. If I can learn more such things, it'll help me in the coming years."
The one striking aspect about Sandeep is his clarity. He admits it wasn't always the case, but Sehwag's assessment that day in 2014 taught him the importance of being a step ahead of the batter.
"So many of them ask what you learnt from this bowler or that bowler. If you ask me, if you can talk to a batter - what they think of you, how they feel they can score against you, and what balls they're uncomfortable with - you can make better plans," Sandeep says. "Obviously, you learn from bowlers, but I talk to batters as well to learn a lot about what they're thinking. That's been a game changer."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo