There's a bit of R Ashwin
about R Sai Kishore
. The left-arm fingerspinner relishes bowling across phases and keeps upgrading his skills to get up to speed with T20 cricket.
Sai Kishore broke into the Tamil Nadu side as a powerplay specialist from the TNPL, but over the last two seasons he has also fronted up to bowl at the death, something that was on display during the IPL 2022 final
In the TNPL that followed, Sai Kishore often slid up the order for Chepauk Super Gillies as a pinch-blocker or a pinch-hitter, the same role that Ashwin performs
for Rajasthan Royals. Sai Kishore has also pinch-blocked for Tamil Nadu in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy, including the final against Himachal Pradesh
"I've always wanted to improve myself," he tells ESPNcricinfo, ahead of the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s starting on October 11. "If this doesn't work, I will go to the next aspect. Upgrading myself has been my driving force - it is not just playing for India and doing well at the IPL. Part of the conscious effort to turn into a better cricketer was working on my batting and be a better team man. If I can do a job with the bat for the team, the team can play an extra bowler. That is the thought process.
"In 2018, I started batting at No. 10, slowly I could score 20-25 runs, and slowly people got the confidence that he could at least play and get some runs. It is not something natural, I've worked hard with R Prasanna [Tamil Nadu assistant coach] but 100% I will get there [as an allrounder]."
These are still early days in Sai Kishore's career, but he has already built a reputation of being a serial winner in T20 cricket. He has won back-to-back IPL titles, first with Chennai Super Kings
and then with Gujarat Titans, back-to-back Syed Mushtaq Ali titles with Tamil Nadu and back-to-back TNPL titles with Chepauk. Sai Kishore credited Tamil Nadu's team culture
for their transformation into a dominant white-ball force.
"We have grown together, and nobody takes their place or the game for granted," he says. "Nobody is a certain starter in this XI, you have to be that good in this team, and people coming through the ranks are aware of that. People have bought into the culture of bowling for the other guy and bowling for the team. Each one of them is ready to do the dirty work for the team. As long as we continue to do that, I feel Tamil Nadu being a dominant force in white-ball cricket will continue."
When T Natarajan
was unavailable through injury last season, Sai Kishore himself did the dirty job of bowling at the death
. That experience served him well in the IPL 2022 final when he was called up to bowl the 16th and 18th overs. He responded with the wickets of Ashwin and Trent Boult.
"Definitely the experience of bowling at the death in Syed Mushtaq Ali helped me in the IPL," Sai Kishore says. "I'm not trying to protect myself. The bowling analysis may sometimes say expensive, but as a spinner, you need guts to bowl at the death. Okay, I could get hit, so what? If the team feels I might be the best fit in this situation, I'm willing to do it and that has given me courage and experience.
"So, when I bowled at the death in the IPL final, it wasn't like 'why I'm bowling here?' I'm ready for it - I've done it for Tamil Nadu, I've done it in TNPL. Hopefully, through all these experiences and through these roles, I will get better."
For someone who bowls in the powerplay and death, Sai Kishore's overall T20 economy rate of 5.68 is particularly striking. In fact, it is the best by an Indian
- and second best globally - among bowlers who have bowled at least 900 balls in T20 cricket. Sai Kishore downplayed his numbers, suggesting it was somewhat skewed because of his limited experience in the IPL.
"When a batsman hits me for sixes, I often try to minimise the damage," he says. "Sometimes you will be bowling well, and the batsman will not take you on. At the time, you should be more fearless and go for his wicket. At that point, you shouldn't mind giving two sixes and should go for his wicket. I usually focus on these things and by doing this, my game-awareness has improved.
"I don't classify myself as an attacking spinner or defensive spinner; I believe T20 cricket is just about playing that situation. The stats are also [that good now] because I haven't played much international cricket or IPL cricket. It's largely domestic cricket, but hopefully, if I can replicate it more consistently at a higher level, it would be a great thing."
I don't know if the last year could've been any better. But with experience, I can get much better and I feel my best is yet to come.
R Sai Kishore
Sai Kishore believes that working with a wristspinner - Rashid Khan
at Titans and M Ashwin
at Tamil Nadu - has also contributed to his success.
"In a way, it plays into my hands and gives me a chance too. If a wristspinner keeps it tight, I will get wickets and if I keep it tight, he will get wickets. If both of us get hit, the team will lose (laughs). It's been a good partnership with MAsh and Rashid - they always play for the team's plans - and it has been easy bowling in tandem with them."
During his stint with Titans, Sai Kishore also tested himself against David Miller
at the nets and developed greater confidence in bowling to left-handers. Against right-handers, he has an economy rate of 5.86 and an average of 20.38 and against left-handers an economy rate of 6.60 and average of 14 (where data is available).
"When you bowl to a powerful guy like Miller, you will know what to do and what not to do as a left-arm spinner," Sai Kishore says. "Ashish Nehra [Gujarat Titans coach] and Hardik [Pandya] backed me to bowl to left-handers in the IPL, they picked me because I can bowl to everyone and not just to right-handers. Ashish Nehra gave me that confidence and that goes a long way.
"In the Indian domestic circuit also, there are a lot of good players of spin and the challenge is not just restricted to left-hand batters. A lot of these batters hit the ball in different pockets of the field and maybe once you get hit, next time you draw on the previous experience and come up better. So, I just see it as a learning experience, and you have to be fearless and back yourself against him."
Winning multiple T20 titles aside, Sai Kishore has had exposure as a net bowler with the India side in both white-ball and red-ball cricket. More recently in the season-opening Duleep Trophy, he emerged as the highest wicket-taker
, with 17 strikes at an average of 20.05. And now at the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, he will be central to Tamil Nadu's chances of doing a three-peat.
"I don't know if the last year could've been any better," Sai Kishore says. "But with experience, I can get much better and I feel my best is yet to come."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo