Evolving Sandeep Sharma continues to make a difference

IPL 2024

Sandeep bowled a defining spell in the death overs against Lucknow Super Giants.

Whether Charles Darwin's theory reached Sandeep Sharma or not, the 30-year-old part-haired, genial-paced seamer is aware that in T20 cricket, it is about the survival of the fittest.

At the start of the 17th over, bowling only his second of the innings, Sandeep started out with a wide yorker to KL Rahul, who went chasing and miscued it to sweeper cover. "If I am bowling with a new ball, then I will never start the first ball on the wide line. The ball should finish in the line of stumps," said Rajasthan Royals' Sandeep, emphasising on his evolution as a death-over bowler.

It proved to be a game-changing over. After being reduced to 22 for 3 in the first four overs of the 194-run chase, Rahul, Nicholas Pooran and Deepak Hooda's counterattack had brought the equation down to a reasonable 49 off the last four overs for Lucknow Super Giants. However, using his slower balls to good effect, Sandeep forced the batters to hit against the breeze, and effectively curtailed their momentum.

Rahul's dismissal followed by a flurry of slower balls that Pooran and Marcus Stonis struggled to put away enabled Royals to pull the pace of the chase back. A tight over by Ashwin further piled the pressure on LSG, and Sandeep continuing with his slew of slower balls and deliveries outside off flipped the contest on its head.

For the last decade, Sandeep has been one of the constant presence in the IPL, having offered his services to Kings XI Punjab and Sunrisers Hyderabad before coming in as a late replacement for Royals last season. Mostly effective, at times game-changing, but rarely being the one hogging the limelight. With swing being his most potent weapon, his most ideal phase of operation is in the powerplay, as evidenced in his second IPL season with Kings XI Punjab, where he returned 18 wickets from 11 innings, out of which 13 in the powerplay - the most by any bowler in that phase.

At the same time, his skillset was proving equally vulnerable in the death overs. In 2014, he conceded at 13.12. In the following three years, it improved to 9.86, 10.21 and 10.79 respectively, but not enough for his team to rely on him in the crucial phase.

It wasn't supposed to be his day to rescue his side to victory on Sunday either. Royals' decision to field five frontline bowlers and play with only three overseas options in the XI allowed them the luxury to choose between either Rovman Powell's brute-hitting powers in the death overs or Nandre Burger's additional reinforcement in the bowling as the Impact Substitute. Meaty contributions by all the batters except Shimron Hetmyer ensured that Powell's support with the bat wasn't needed and Burger was handed new-ball responsibility alongside Trent Boult.

Had Royals been pushed into a position of bringing in Powell as the substitute, possibly Sandeep would've had to bowl a couple of overs in the powerplay. But that wasn't to be, and in the end there was an excess of bowling options - of which Sandeep was the least reputed.

With Avesh Khan, Kuldeep Sen and Navdeep Saini already in the squad, the clamour for the maximum of two seam-bowling spots for Indians was always going to be a tough one, despite Prasidh Krishna being ruled out. And with Boult expected to handle the powerplay duties, much responsibility lay in fulfilling the pressure role of the latter overs. It's an aspect of the game Sandeep has worked towards, improved and evolved. It's come more out of force than choice.

In the ever-evolving strategies of T20 cricket, which includes bringing in part-timers to bowl the first over, there are ample candidates for effective control in the powerplay. That isn't the case in death overs bowling though. Very few in India, and even globally, have managed to be authoritative in that period of play. It's this demand and supply conundrum that Sandeep has understood well.

There aren't enough death-over specialists in the world game, and even fewer who operate at the pace at which Sandeep does. His ability to nail the yorkers with high consistency improves his efficiency, much like it has been the case for Bhuvneshwar Kumar. However, beyond his yorkers and slower variations, the overall skillset he operates with is limited.

He had displayed signs of improvement in the death overs in 2019, a season in which he delivered 12.4 overs in that period and conceded at only 7.42 an over. In the same phase, he bowled 13 overs the next season and gave away runs at 9.08 an over. After two years of sporadic appearances when much of the tournament was played in the UAE, he had his most successful stint in 2023 when he scalped seven wickets in 14.5 overs at an economy rate of 9.71.

Last season, he saw the best of both worlds of the death-bowling pressure. Defending four runs off the last ball against MS Dhoni to hand Chennai Super Kings a rare defeat at home and then nailing a last-ball yorker off Abdul Samad, only to have overstepped and be carted for a six while defending five runs. A victory in that game against SRH could have helped his team qualify for the playoffs. But that wasn't to be.

He would wish the ghosts of last season were past him, and in a fresh season, he could bring his fresh and improved version as a death-over bowler. On a day when there were multiple standout individual performers, a contest in which fortunes fluctuated for the two teams, it was his late spell that proved to be the deciding factor in securing the fate of the match. Sandeep hailed the support of the RR team management and said, "When I came into the team, I knew I would get fewer opportunities with the new ball. I practised a lot in the nets on my slower bouncers, yorkers and death bowling.

"This is a matter of mindset. If I know that I will get to bowl more with the new ball, then I will practise more on that... If the management clearly tells you or if you know where you have to bowl the majority (of the overs), it becomes easy to prepare."

Sandeep may not have an award to show for his efforts on Sunday evening, but his contribution was well noticed by his teammates. "The game is built by perceptions, if you look at the way Sandy has bowled, he has been a top-5 bowler (in the IPL) - he's a character, does the dirty work for us, did a lot to cover for Prasidh in the last season as well," R Ashwin said after the win. "I see him as a fighter - bowlers getting 2 bouncers is the only fillip in this format and the bowlers are looking to use it."

Skipper Sanju Samson then added, "I should give this trophy to him (Sandeep). If he didn't bowl those three overs, I wouldn't be POTM. I thought I should call him. I heard Ash bhai say it's not just about skill but character in pressure moments. He has that in his eyes, in his body language that you can trust that guy."

Sandeep hails from one of India's most amusing generations of Under-19 cricketers. That team, led by Unmukt Chand, may have won the U-19 world cup, but most of the players of that side struggled to even have a notable first-class career, let alone generate interest from IPL franchises or be close to an international berth. Sandeep found a place in a second-string Indian team touring Zimbabwe in 2015. A few years later, Hanuma Vihari had a short run in the Test side. Three of those players left the country to fulfil their cricketing aspirations.