Two months back, when the five wise men of Indian cricket were jotting down names for the 15-man World Cup squad, Mohit Sharma was sweating it out in a Ranji Trophy fixture for Haryana in Lahli. In fact, that very morning he took a hat-trick against Delhi and ended up with a four-wicket haul in the match. He would later find out that he would have to take a flight for Australia to be a part of the ODI tri-series. To his disappointment though, he did not find his name on the World Cup squad list.
‘Never mind’ Mohit, told himself. Work ethics won’t change, the hunger would remain a constant and with time he would find meaning to the saying ‘Hard work pays’. Injury concerns to the Indian pace battery would mean Mohit would stay back with the Indian squad as for cover. In restless times, assurance would comfort him and as luck would have it, he was named as a replacement for Ishant Sharma who was flown back home due to a knee injury.
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A World Cup dream was about to be fulfilled and the bowler in Mohit geared up for challenges ahead. In three WC games so far Mohit has put up notable performances picking up wickets and affecting run-outs at crucial junctures of the match. Ahead of the game against West Indies, he recalls his journey to the World Cup with a glint in his eyes. From not being named in the list of probables to being India’s crucial addition to the pace quartet, Mohit Sharma describes this wonderful journey and speaks at length about his bowling prowess in a BCCI.TV exclusive.
It has been a tough but satisfying journey to the World cup, hasn’t it?
(Smiles) I have always been fascinated by the game of cricket. I stayed outdoors and bunked classes just to play cricket like every other cricket loving kid. It was always my dream to represent my country and I always wished I would play the World Cup some day. Having said that, I never worked towards achieving that specific dream. Playing cricket at the highest level was my first priority. Slowly as I was going through the ranks of domestic cricket, I did visualize myself playing for the country and once that happened I did dream of playing in the World Cup. As you said, it has been tough, but satisfying as of now.
Talking about your tough days, you suffered a severe back injury seven years back. How did you get back on your feet post that injury?
When I was just 19, I had a severe back problem and played cricket for a year with that injured back. It just became worse as the time passed by and there came a point when I would suffer severe back aches even when changing positions while sleeping. It became irritating after a point of time. I didn’t have that many facilities at that time and couldn’t afford treatments. If I had to visit a good doctor I would have to travel for long hours in the bus and that would again affect my back. There came a time when I actually lost hopes of going back to the cricket field.
That is when my Haryana coach Vijay Yadav asked me to wait for a year and be patient. I worked with our Haryana Physio Amit Tyagi who helped me to get back in shape. My back began to get better in five months time. Slowly I began to regain fitness and it was almost like a rebirth for me when I started playing cricket again. Now, my physios and trainers know that I have had a back problem in the past and we work accordingly. I have a body that is prone to injuries and I know I have to work on the weak points of my body. I am working towards it and would want to be injury free as much as I can.
You played most of your cricket at Lahli where the wicket suits fast bowlers. In hindsight did it help you prepare for challenges abroad?
I feel a fast bowler gains a lot if he plays in Lahli where the wicket is true. The advantage of bowling at Lahli is that it swings a lot there and you learn to control that swing. Playing there has been useful for me and conditions here are a bit similar. The difference between bowling at Lahli and bowling here is the release. The better you release the ball, the better it is in Lahli whereas here in Australia your effectiveness depends a lot on the way you hit the deck. You need to run fast and hit the deck hard to do well in these conditions.
How did you prepare yourself to be effective in Australia?
This is the second time I am coming to Australia. The first time I came here I played in Darwin for India A. But the wickets in Darwin are almost similar to the ones we have in India. It is slow, hot and humid. The wickets that I have played on so far here are totally different. There is a lot more bounce and the ground dimensions too are obviously different. The ODI tri-series helped me understand the conditions here and it has been helpful for me to perform in the World Cup.
Three games into the World Cup, how would you rate your own performance?
Till now everything has gone well. I have been given a particular role and I feel I have played my role well. My role in the first two matches was to maintain the pressure created by Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav. Bowling a lot of dot balls at that time was crucial which helped in building more pressure on the batsmen to assist R Ashwin and R Jadeja later on. We have ticked all the boxes in the first three games. As a team, to be very honest, we haven’t been put under pressure. None of the three matches have put us under the pump. We are still waiting for the pressure game and we will know how we perform when we are under serious pressure. We have been consistent till now, doing the hard work and the results are there to be seen.
What have you done to gain a few yards of pace in your bowling?
When we were playing against South Africa in South Africa, Duncan Fletcher and MS Dhoni noticed that I had a very basic problem while approaching the crease and delivering the ball. I used to rock back a lot at the point of delivery. It is at that time that they told me that the more you rock back the tougher it will get to come forward to your delivery stride. I worked on that aspect through a few drills by getting used to a modified action and by starting off with short run-ups. It is because of that modification that I believe I have gained a bit more speed.
But personally, does the speed or the lack of it bother you?
Not at all. Traditionally we have a notion that Indian bowlers are slow. If a bowler from any side other than India bowls at 135kmph or more, we say that the bowler is fast. But if Indian bowlers notch 140kmph, we are not given credit. The 140kmph deliveries that we bowl are completely ignored and we are singled out for our slowest ball. I feel till the time you are effective, you have no reasons to worry. But I know for a fact that the moment I get ineffective while bowling at the 130s, people will again get back saying I am slow and Indian bowlers lack pace. If you look at our bowling attack, we have three pacers who can clock 140kmph. Bhuvneshwar Kumar might not reach that speed but he has the accuracy and swing to make up for his lack of pace. I feel people should appreciate the fact that this Indian bowling attack too can bowl fast and clock good speeds in these conditions.
India had a potent pace attack in 2003 with the likes of Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra. Does the current pace attack have similar traits?
We can’t compare our attack to the 2003 World Cup pace attack. Those bowlers were brilliant in their own way and icons of the game. Personally, I don’t think any other cricketer has given so much to Indian fast bowling the way Zaheer Khan has. Be it nurturing young talent or leading by example and putting up match-winning performances, Zaheer is right up there. I keep in touch with him and he always keeps a tab on my bowling and tells me areas I can work on. When I was bowling in South Africa he was following my performances on TV back home. He has immense knowledge of bowling and is always ready to help you when needed.
Talk of how the current Indian pacers work in a group.
Our pace battery works in unison and we are learning each day. When we are practicing, we bowl together and keep discussing about ways to improve our individual games. If I do anything wrong, I have Umesh Yadav to guide me in the right direction. If Shami has something to share with me I give him my point of view. I feel Bhuvi has a great knowledge of bowling and we keep sharing experiences to better each others’ game.
The more you practice the more effective you get. We practice keeping things like match pressure and match situations in mind. We have a proper match field setting and bowl according to it. We are even given situations wherein we are briefed about a match situation. To simulate mid-inning conditions, we are given similarly old ball and asked to bowl accordingly. If an opener is batting, then we are given a new ball.
These are things that help you execute your plans better on a match day.
You have Andy Bichel in the Chennai Super Kings side. What kind of an influence has he had on your bowling?
Bichel has played a huge role in my development as a bowler. I have learnt a lot from him being a part of the Chennai Super Kings squad. For instance, in the last IPL season against KKR I suddenly lost my rhythm in bowling. I bowled one ball and after that my rhythm got spoilt. I was running in hard but used to lose my rhythm midway and get back to my bowling mark. This happened quite a few times and Bichel worked with me to rectify that problem and get my rhythm back. I still speak to him at times regarding my run-up and he has always been there to help me out. Before leaving for Australia, he even advised me on how to bowl in Australian conditions. He even told me the different variations I could use and when I should use them. Every bowler has the yorker, bouncer, slower ball and length ball but it is important to know when to bowl those. He told me when to use each one of them according to a match situation. Even MS Dhoni during a match would tell me in what phases to bowl certain kinds of deliveries.
Bichel said the most important thing is the mindset. Nothing changes in the way you bowl in India and the way you bowl here, it is all about the thinking. He told me to run hard and try my best to bowl at one area consistently. He asked me to target a particular length and hit the same spot again and again.
You spoke about MS Dhoni. How has he helped you become a better bowler?
I consider myself fortunate to be playing under his captaincy. The highlight of his captaincy is that he knows his players inside out. He understands the frame of mind of each player. For him it doesn’t matter if you are getting hit as a bowler. What matters is the effort and the manner in which the bowler is getting hit. He always says, ‘If you are going for runs trying to execute a plan, then there is nothing to worry since you have plan B.’ But if you are not going to go according to plans and directly looking to execute plan C, then you are wrong as a bowler.
He is so calm and composed that he will never show that things aren’t going your way. He will come, put an arm around your shoulder and give you the belief that things will get better from here on. As a bowler you cannot ask for anything more.
At a time when the batsmen are ruling the game, how integral do variations become in a bowler’s armory?
The batsman nowadays comes with only one frame of mind and that is to exploit fielding conditions and score runs freely. Variations become crucial at that point of time and you need to have four to five variations in your bowling armory. I don’t bowl at 150kmph, a speed that would scare the batsman. So variations become important for me. Also, with the new rule of having just four fielders outside the circle, the game has become a lot more challenging for the bowlers. You need to develop skills accordingly and try your best to outthink a batsman by making him play according to your plans. You need to set a field where the batsman would think that he can expect three different deliveries at that point of time. Once you outthink the batsman, the result is in your favour.
You don’t have a typical fast bowler’s body frame. In a way do you think it works in your favour and people normally wouldn’t expect a bouncer from you?
You could say that. Normally people wouldn’t expect me to bowl a bouncer at a good pace but I have an advantage that my short deliveries skid off the pitch. The bouncer is my effort ball and when it hits the surface it skids at a good pace. The negative side is I may get hit in the bargain but there is a lot of chance that the batsmen wouldn’t read my bouncer. If your intent is to bowl a bouncer then you need to bowl a fast one and trouble the batsman. If you bowl a bouncer slower then it won’t reach the desired height and the batsman will hit you easily. If it is fast and directed towards the head and the batsman is stunned, only then you can call it an effective bouncer.
Of late you have been bowling a lot of deliveries from the back of your hand. How and when did you develop this?
(Laughs) I have no clue when I made that discovery. Even when I used to play gully cricket with a tennis ball, I used to bowl this delivery from the back of my hand. The tennis ball being soft would squeeze and would end up being a full toss delivery making it ineffective. Then when I started going to the academy I tried bowling it with the leather ball. I got severely criticised for using that delivery since I was getting thrashed for runs while bowling it. I bowled it once in a crucial match situation in a district game and it went for a boundary and we lost the game. But something told me that this is an important ball and could give me good results in the future. I kept bowling them and finally started getting wickets with it. The sight of the batsman getting surprised and losing their wicket off that ball is a treat to watch. People slowly began to appreciate it and I realised this could be one of my weapons. It has helped me to get wickets in limited over games.
India face West Indies next. Is Chris Gayle factor looming large?
The Gayle factor would be there but when things are going well for you, you don’t think about the individual. At that time you only have the wicket in sight and that becomes your target. We know Gayle will try his best to get the better of us, but we also know that he will take a bit of time before he begins his attack. That is the time we need to bank on and get his wicket. When he is defensive, that is the time we need to attack. We will work out a plan and hope to execute well on that WACA wicket. It is not a wicket were you can straight away go for your shots. We will stick to our strengths and look to execute our plans.
When it comes to fast bowling, who do you consider your role model?
I love Dale Steyn. I watch a lot of his bowling videos and try to pick a few things. We have spoken a few times during the IPL. He is a fun-loving and down to earth guy. He has such a big stature in world cricket yet he is so grounded. These are things that you grasp as an individual from him. He has told me a lot about bowling with respect to training patterns and outdoor activities. Given an option, I would take his typical fast bowling attitude into my game. He is someone who is aggressive right from ball one and takes it till the last ball of the innings.
I know I cannot be like him because I am a lot calmer. But if I can keep that attitude inside me and keep that aggression burning from within then it will be helpful for me. I will try to take that aggression in my game, not by showing it but by keeping it inside me and helping it transform my performances.