Harshal has spent the last four weeks in rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. The first two weeks were spent working on his physical conditioning before he resumed bowling. One of his main areas of focus has been to be ahead of the curve and carry on, which the X-factor bowler teams crave.
“You’re not going to be able to do it every game, but if I can do it in two games out of five or three out of five, that will be a goal worth striving for.”
Almost a year later, he has emerged as a key member of India’s T20I arsenal. The layoff due to injury, he believes, has helped him explore different facets of his craft aside from working on their execution, which is the “harder part.” Two of these areas are his new-ball bowling and length variations.
“I’ve been exploring a bit in terms of the lengths I can bowl with the slower ball,” he explained. “Usually when I bowl the slower balls it’s mainly fuller or at the good length. But now I’ve started bowling more shorter slower balls which work really well for me. That’s one thing of course.
“I have also been working on my new ball skills for a while. I started doing it in the middle of the IPL. Just because in the IPL what I had to do [mainly middle-overs and death bowling]all my skills were top notch so I didn’t have to work on them.
“So every time I went to practice I would take a new ball and start bowling with it because it’s good to have a skill and not need it and vice versa. It’s just something I’ve been working on. on and if I get an opportunity, for India or for RCB [Royal Challengers Bangalore]I would love to do that.”
Harshal is deeply analytical and challenges himself to keep improving. That the team management has been clear about what they expect from him has also helped.
In the 30 T20s this year, he has bowled 54 overs in the middle stages for 19 wickets at an economy rate of 6.61 and 41.1 overs at the death for 18 wickets at 10.17. By comparison, in the 11 innings in which he entered the first six, he averaged just one over per. match.
“The [India coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma] has been nothing but supportive,” Harshal said. “Whatever the ethos of the team is, they’ve taken precedence over individuals, which is a great thing.
“They told me my role exactly. They said, ‘we want you to be able to bowl in all three phases, not just middle and death’. They have bowled me once at the end of the powerplay each only game just to get used to it.”
It is not just his bowling that Harshal has worked on. He also takes great pride in his shot. “My ability to hit on No. 8 is something they [team management] real value,” he said. “I haven’t worked on my batting much because of time constraints because you’re constantly competing. But during the rehabilitation I have had a chance to hit 500-700 balls over two-three weeks. It’s something I’ve wanted to work on for a while because I really want to contribute in that capacity as well.”
What has helped along the way is clarity in roles and support from the captain and coach. Harshal believes this is crucial for individuals from a mental point of view because it helps with better decision-making, especially when players return from injury.
“It takes a bit of pressure off you,” he said. “Because sometimes people make foolish decisions when they come back to play. They either try to do too much or try to push too hard because they feel their place is in danger or whatever.
“But if you know for sure that the team management will remember what you did before you were injured and those achievements and contributions will not be forgotten, then it gives you a sense of calm or comfort once you get back into the team . – of course you have to perform again and again and that goes for every single cricketer – you know you want to keep that place in the team.”
As Harshal looks ahead, the mention of ‘VM’ brings a smile to his face. He grew up like any other kid who dreams of playing in one, and in about a month it will all come true.
“Obviously I’m super excited,” he said. “I will get nervous at some point, but at this point I am just excited. The two World Cups India have won in 2007 and 2011, I clearly remember where I was and what I did.
“After we won the World Cup, like all kids, we took our scooters and went out into the streets to dance and jump and shout. It would be great if I could play and if we end up winning the World Cup, to have that circle completed would be a great feeling.But [right now] it’s going to be a lot of excitement and nervous energy.”
Shashank Kishore is Senior Sub-Editor at ESPNcricinfo