Sai Kishore thrives in new role to give Tamil Nadu another shot at T20 glory

Whether it's bowling at the death or playing the ukulele, this has been a season of learnings for the left-arm spinner

Deivarayan Muthu
R Sai Kishore has consistently been among the most economical bowlers in domestic T20 cricket  •  R Sai Kishore

R Sai Kishore has consistently been among the most economical bowlers in domestic T20 cricket  •  R Sai Kishore

In the 2019-20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, R Sai Kishore had an economy rate of 4.63 - the best among bowlers who had bowled at least 20 overs. In the 2020-21 tournament, the left-arm fingerspinner had an economy rate of 4.82 - the second-best with the same cut-off.
This season his economy rate has jumped to 6.50, which is nevertheless impressive, considering his new role as Tamil Nadu's middle-and-death-overs spin option in their run to their third straight T20 final.
In the last couple of years, when Dinesh Karthik was the captain, Sai Kishore was the side's new-ball specialist. He has now fronted up to bowl at the slog for the Vijay Shankar-led side, in the absence of their designated death bowler T Natarajan, and Sonu Yadav, who did the job during Tamil Nadu's run to the title last season.
"When DK was the captain, I think we were a little sorted in terms of our death bowling," Sai Kishore tells ESPNcricinfo on the eve of the final. "It was in the powerplay that he wanted me to bowl, but this year we were playing around our roles a little bit because we weren't particularly sure of who will bowl when.
"I also bowled at the death in the TNPL and this year I had a slot to bowl at the death. I read [the intentions of batters] Vijay (Vijay Shankar) and Jaggi (N Jagadeesan) when I bowl at the nets and the coaching staff has so much belief in me to bowl anywhere. Whenever they want to plug the runs or go for the wickets, they're trying to use me."
On his 25th birthday, in Lucknow, Sai Kishore netted a hat-trick in the last over against Puducherry, pinning them down to 129 for 8. Sai Kishore says the birthday hat-trick hasn't sunk in yet and that his job isn't done yet.
"I really didn't know it was a hat-trick. Jaggi only told me it was a hat-trick," Sai recalls. "I was worried because the first ball went for six, so I just wanted to end the over well because they had scored 120-125. I didn't necessarily go for wickets and I just tried to be as defensive as possible. It happens in T20 when you get wickets by luck... I didn't feel much and it didn't hit me and I've to perform the next match. So, maybe after some time, in hindsight, it will hit me."
Sai Kishore hasn't got a game for Chennai Super Kings in the past three years but being part of an IPL set-up and a stint as net bowler for India on their Sri Lanka tour last year have helped him grow into a more rounded T20 bowler. He has bowled in various phases for TN in the past three years in both the Vijay Hazare (50 overs) and Syed Mushtaq Ali tournaments, forging a potent partnership with legspinner M Ashwin.
"In the last two years my game has gone up, having been part of CSK, though I didn't get a game," Sai Kishore says. "I would have learned, but it would have taken more time had I not been there at CSK. I'm more confident in my game and my game-reading skills have improved. So, in a game situation, I'm even willing to go for extra runs, if I can finish the match for the team.
"I'm also grateful to have been picked in the India squad from domestic cricket without having played IPL. That experience has given me a lot of confidence as to what that level of cricket is, what is actually needed there and for all those things I'm grateful.
"Previously, I also had the ego of bowling one more ball to dare him [the batter] to hit it. If they need 15 runs an over, I can actually be smart here and if I bowl tightly at my end, the other guy has the chance of picking the wicket. When me and Ash (M Ashwin) bowl together, we plan like that. If the target is huge, we can finish it off if both me and Ash bowl well together. That game-reading skills have gotten better that way."
On the flip side, Sai Kishore has had to shift from one bubble to another in recent times, going from the one in Sri Lanka to the TNPL to CSK to Tamil Nadu. Two days after the Sri Lanka tour, Sai Kishore joined the TNPL bubble and bowled Chepauk Super Gillies to victory with 4 for 30. Sai Kishore says he has learned to embrace the bubble life and that he has found other ways to keep him occupied.
"CSK bubble was good fun," he says. "I had Rutu (Ruturaj Gaikwad) with me and the atmosphere was very good. In Sri Lanka, the first one month was spent in quarantine and moving around the hotel. In the TN bubble, I always enjoy being with these boys, so I'm just trying to look at things that are working well.
"If I don't play here and be at home, I know I definitely won't be happy. After coming from Sri Lanka, I felt I needed match-time, so I played the TNPL, and we won the tournament, so it was a very good feeling.
"The bubble has gotten us closer and I've got into a bit of music and trying to learn new instruments. I tried violin and the mouth organ but didn't work for me [laughs]. Ukulele, I guess, came decently to me."
Sai Kishore has also expanded his variations, but has put them back in his locker, instead trying to fit into roles defined by the team management. However, he hints that it might not be too long before he goes funky and unveils those variations.
"It's a work in progress," he says. "There was one game in the TNPL where I tried to do something different, and I guess sometimes I should come out of the shell sometime soon. I've been working on a few variations, but I haven't bowled anywhere. Indha over nee thaan pottu kudukanum nu bodhu [when the team wants you to bowl that over for them], it's slightly harder to go out of the pattern and maybe I should work on a way to bring it out somewhere. It [variety] has been there in the repertoire for some time, but I haven't been able to use it. It's similar to a batsman having a sweep and him not having the need to use it right now."
Sai Kishore was padded up in the dug-out when Tamil Nadu suffered a heartbreaking one-run defeat at the hands of Karnataka in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy final in 2019 in Surat. Two years on, he has become a more versatile bowler and one of the faces of a new-look Tamil Nadu side that continues to dominate T20 cricket despite the absence of Karthik, R Ashwin, Washington Sundar, Varun Chakravarthy, M Vijay and Abhinav Mukund.
Sai Kishore and Tamil Nadu are now set to face Karnataka in another T20 final in Delhi, and he believes the 2019 result will not have an impact on Monday's game.
"To be honest, there aren't too much emotions [from the 2019 final]," Sai Kishore says. "When we lost then, I was in my second [full] season - that was when guys like Jaggi, Hari [Nishaanth], Momi [M Mohammed] got regular game-time. Since then, most of these guys have played consistently together but at that time we didn't have that much experience of playing a final.
"I feel we haven't played to our best yet this season - we've been here, been there, but yet to put together a complete game. So, we're just trying to learn from the semis, quarters and just try and put on a show."

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo