Inwards and upwards for Akash Deep


It could have been those words from Dravid which spurred him on but Akash Deep looked on from ball one.

Around this time last year, Akash Deep was in a dilemma.

Being primarily an inswing bowler, he felt he was missing out on a lot of wickets because he couldn't take the ball away from right-handers at will. But he was unsure if he really needed the outswinger, developing which would come with the risk of veering away from his natural strengths. So, he went to his Bengal coach Laxmi Ratan Shukla for advice.

"Don't make that mistake please," Shukla recalls telling Akash Deep.

"Someone had put it in his head that he needs the away-going delivery. I wasn't a big fan of that idea. When he can straighten the ball now and then due to natural variations off the pitch, what's the need for an outswinger? And especially when you are already so successful in domestic cricket with the red and the white ball?"

Akash Deep listened to his coach and didn't go down that route.

A year on from making that decision and reaping rewards in the Ranji Trophy, the pacer was bowling in a Test match in Ranchi, a city he'd remind everyone was "midway" between Beda and Kolkata: the place he belonged to and the place he played his cricket for. It was Rahul Dravid who handed him the cap with a touching speech, which retold his difficult journey of losing two family members in a year, moving cities not once but twice to make it as a professional cricketer, and getting through the ups and downs to finally make it to where he was standing.

"I was very emotional when he delivered that speech," Akash Deep said after the opening day's play in Ranchi. "When I had lost my father and my brother in the same year, I wanted to do something in my life. Then I left my home to play cricket and Bengal really supported me.

"My family has a big role to play in my success, because when you lose two family members in a year, you have nothing to lose but only to gain.

"I want to dedicate this performance to my father. He wanted his son to do something in his life but I couldn't do anything while he was alive. So this is for him."

It could have been those words from Dravid which spurred him on but Akash Deep looked the part right from the first ball he bowled. His sharp incoming deliveries bowled from wide of the crease were proving to be a menace for the batters once again, just that this time they were high-quality Test batters belonging to the top-order of England.

It wasn't just the pace in high 130s and early 140s that was impressive from Akash Deep during his opening seven-over burst but it was the consistency with which he was hitting the hard lengths on a slow pitch. Ball after ball, he was peppering the same nine square inches outside off-stump at the Amitabh Chaudhary Pavilion End and getting appreciable inward movement. Some deliveries even went the other way, thanks to the wobble seam position which planted the doubt in the batter's mind. All that translated into three wickets in that spell.

Take his ball to Zak Crawley that sent the off-stump cartwheeling. It might not have gotten him his maiden Test wicket because he had overstepped, but the way he got the ball to deck in after pitching screamed of those natural strengths he'd placed his faith in all those months ago. And as fate would have it, he would go on to bowl Crawley once again with a delivery four clicks quicker. The off-stump stayed intact this time around but Crawley was sent packing.

His ball to Pope was pretty similar, only getting the batter out lbw instead of bowled. The standout, though, was his delivery to Ben Duckett that got him his first Test wicket. It pitched on a good length from round the wicket and nipped away just enough from the left-hander to catch the edge.

That he could hit the right areas from ball one was of course down to how well he won over his nerves but it was also about the hard yards he had put it in domestic cricket, especially this season. At the start of this one, he was in Kalyani practicing "spot bowling", which is a session in which a bowler makes a mark on the pitch and puts in hours trying to nail the ball at the same spot. By his side during those sessions was a sheet chart, Shukla reveals. "After every over he bowled, he used to go to the chart and mark the 'good balls' he's bowled and the 'okay balls' he's bowled. There was no option for 'bad balls' because he wasn't allowed to bowl them. No negativity, you see."

Shukla sees much of the same in Akash Deep, the cricketer as well as the person. "Hum wicket nikaal ke denge sir (I will get the breakthrough sir)," the pacer often comes up and says on days when Bengal are having it tough on the field.

"Khelne ka jazbaa aur iccha doosre ladkon se alag kerta hai usko," Shukla adds, basically emphasizing how Akash Deep's desire and passion separates him from the rest. It was also the first thing for the coach that stood out. "When you are different, everything about you is different. He doesn't get tired, keeps training. I don't believe in the word 'professional' for him. I would call him 'khadoos' but meet him off the field and he is a cow. He is all heart all the time.

"And he listens. Last year after the Mushtaq Ali Trophy, he got injured and went on to miss the Vijay Hazare trophy. He was on course to miss the Ranji Trophy as well but I had to threaten him into playing that season for us. I told him to tell NCA that he wanted to come at any cost. They wanted to look after him for 10 more days but I told him that Bengal needs him. And the guy listened to me, played and picked 41 wickets. Look where he is today."

It was late in the night yesterday that Shukla received a text from Akash Deep. "Sir, hum khel rahe hain (Sir I am playing tomorrow)", the WhatsApp message read.

Shukla sleeps by nine o'clock, so he was able to get back to him only in the morning. "Bajrangbali ka naam lena aur kood jaana (Take the name of god and just dive right in)," was his reply.

"I wasn't surprised at all by the news of his debut," Shukla, who has known Akash Deep from his U23 days, said. "I told him to do exactly what he's been doing all these months and not forget about his lines outside off-stump. That's his strength and that's what he had been practicing all these months."

It was in Trivandrum that Akash Deep got to know about his maiden call-up to the Indian Test team. Bengal were playing Kerala in a Ranji Trophy game and Shukla was right by him. As a parting gift for his pupil, Shukla had nothing more than a box of amla (Indian gooseberries).


"I have been feeding them to him for the last two years," Shukla explains. "It is a good source of Vitamin C. It increases stamina and prevents injury. No chance of cramps."