Despite being only 27 years old, Sandeep Sharma is one of the most experienced players in the Indian Premier League. He started his IPL career with Kings XI Punjab in 2013, an association that continued for the next five years until Sunrisers Hyderabad bought him in the auction ahead of the 2018 season of the IPL.
The right-arm seamer from Punjab has played in two T20Is for India and was part of the Indian team that won the U-19 World Cup in 2012 as well. It was his performance at the U-19 level that caught the attention of IPL scouts and he has picked up a total of 95 wickets in 79 IPL games since then, at an excellent strike-rate and economy rate of 18.36 and 7.81 respectively.
In an exclusive conversation with CricXtasy, Sandeep Sharma opens up about the highs and lows of his IPL career, his time with Kings XI Punjab, how his stint with Sunrisers Hyderabad has made him a complete bowler and more.
There’s finally some positive news in these times with the IPL all set to happen. As a cricketer, how tough has it been to sit at home for the past five months without any sporting action?
It has been very tough. As players, we spend most of our time playing and training, but that has been missing for the last four-five months. But the IPL is all set to begin now and that’s a very positive and motivating news for us. There seemed to be no hope a month back but now I am mentally preparing myself to give my best as the tournament begins and I am working hard on my fitness as well.
It could be challenging as a pacer to perform after coming back from such a long break. What are the things you did in this lockdown to keep your fitness level up?
Fortunately, my house is quite spacious. I have a garden and I used to run in it when total lockdown was there. I even used my household things like Gas cylinder for strength conditioning and training. But, when lockdown was lifted, I borrowed equipments from my friend who owns a gym in the city.
You know, even though lockdown was lifted, gyms were not allowed to open. So l asked him and he allowed me to bring his equipments to my home. It was with his help that I had been maintaining my strength and fitness.
I have also been going to a ground outside the city for two months now. It is one of my friends’ too. Some of us go there, run and bowl as well on the wickets laid down there. Very few people go there as it is outside the city, so it is safe as well.
The physical aspect is one thing but how challenging has it been mentally to deal with these times?
It’s been very challenging. It was fine staying at home and spending time with your family for the first one month or so. But, after that, things started becoming a bit boring and frustrating. We are players afterall, we need to go out and play. So things became quite draining mentally but I tried to visualize that I am on the field and kept telling myself that this time will end soon.
The IPL is going to happen in UAE this time and the conditions there don’t offer that much help to pacers. But you have good numbers from the three IPL matches that was played there in 2014. So what do you think is going to be the key to adapt to those conditions for pacers?
Actually, there are three grounds over there. When I played in 2014, the Dubai wicket was good to bowl on, the wicket at Sharjah was a bit flat but the Abu Dhabi track was on the slower side. But that was six years ago and this is 2020 now. There hasn’t been that much cricket of late as well, so I think the wickets prepared there will be fresh when the tournament starts.
But, as the tournament progresses, the wickets will start slowing down as only three grounds will be used anyway for as many as 60 matches. So you can bowl a lot more with seam up during the early stage of the IPL but you will need to use your variations a lot towards the latter stages as wickets slow down.
Experience of playing in these conditions will also matter a lot.
Have you worked on any new variations since IPL 2019?
Not as such. I have been practicing bowling the cutters, slower bouncers and knuckle ball as usual. But, yes, I have been focusing a lot more on using the crease and creating different angles.
You used the knuckle ball to good effect in the last season even though a lot of other bowlers struggled to execute it properly. What is the most important thing to keep in mind as a bowler while delivering a knuckle ball?
There are two important things actually. One is to keep your bowling palm hidden right until the point of release and the other is the accuracy of pitching. It becomes pretty easy for the batsman to play if he spots the way you are holding the ball during your run up. So it is important to deceive him right until the last moment.
And you have to be accurate with pitching the ball where you want to as well. It requires rigorous practice in the nets but once your muscles become habituated, it becomes a little easier.
People have always known you as a new-ball bowler. But your death overs numbers have improved massively in the last two years you have been with SRH. What are the changes that you have made to your bowling?
When Sunrisers Hyderabad picked me up in the 2018 auction, I wasn’t very happy as bowling with the new ball was what I specialized in at that point and Bhuvneshwar Kumar was already there as their lead new-ball bowler. So I wasn’t sure what my role was going to be in SRH as I wasn’t really confident about bowling in the middle-overs or even in the death.
But Murali sir (Muttiah Muralitharan) assured me that they have faith in me that I can learn quickly and can be equally successful bowling in the middle and death overs.
In order to deliver on their faith, I had to develop different variations like the knuckle ball and the slower bouncer. I never felt the need to develop these deliveries before as I used to swing the new ball very well and got wickets too. But everything changed after coming to SRH.
Can we say that two seasons at SRH have made you a better bowler then?
I wasn’t happy before but if you ask me today, I’ll say that my stint with Sunrisers Hyderabad helped me in growing up as a bowler. All of the Indian bowlers like Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Siddharth Kaul, Khaleel Ahmed and T Natarajan were at SRH. So the competition dragged me out of my comfort zone and brought the best out of me. I feel complete as a bowler today.
Previously, I used to bowl three overs up front and one odd over at the death, that too occasionally. I had no idea about how to bowl in the middle-overs in particular. But SRH have made me bowl in almost every situation from the 1st to the 20th over in the last two seasons and today I am fully confident about delivering at any stage of the game.
You said that Muttiah Muralitharan helped you a lot in settling down at SRH. Can you tell us in detail about your equation with him?
My equation has been good with everyone. Not only Murali sir, but I get along very well with Laxman sir (VVS Laxman) and Tom Moody Sir as well. But the thing with Murali sir is that he is our mentor, so he interacts with us a lot more than others.
In fact, he is like a sea of knowledge. So whenever he talks, we try to absorb as much knowledge as possible. He is one of the greatest this sport has ever seen and he talks about wide range of topics like how to prepare, how to remain mentally tough in demanding situations and, most importantly, how to react to failures. So I try to learn as many things as possible from him.
While your stint with SRH has helped you in reaching a different level as a bowler, you were a vital cog of KXIP’s bowling attack for many seasons. Can you tell us about the reason they let you go?
Kings XI Punjab were actually going to buy me back in the 2018 IPL auction and they bid for me as well. But, unfortunately, I went a little over budget for them and SRH picked me up. After that, I spoke to the KXIP manager and Preity Zinta ma’am as well. They told me that they wanted to buy me back but the price became unaffordable for them.
Sometimes these things happen in auction you know. We can’t control them, so there is no hard feelings from my side as well. I always cherish the time when I played for Kings XI Punjab and respect them a lot because they are the ones who gave me a chance for the first time. Whatever I am today is because of them. They picked me in 2013 and gave me a platform like the IPL.
You played for KXIP for many seasons under captains like George Bailey and Glenn Maxwell. Under whose leadership did you enjoy playing the most there?
I enjoyed playing the most under George Bailey. He is a very calm and composed character. We went into the final of IPL 2014 under his leadership as well and that pretty much sums up his leadership skills.
After coming to SRH, you have had the opportunity of playing under another fine leader like Kane Williamson. Can you give us a little insight on him? What makes him stand out as a leader?
The best thing about Kane Williamson is that he is very understanding. He knows when to talk and how much to talk to get any job successfully done from his teammates. More importantly, he knows how to handle failures of his teammates. He chooses his words wisely and is very motivating even in tough situations.
That’s what you want from any captain, right? He backs you always, no matter what happens. He doesn’t give up on anyone or any situation till the last moment and that’s what makes him a great leader.
You are going to play under the leadership of David Warner this time. How would you describe him as a character on and off the field?
Actually he is quite cool. On the field, his work ethic is amazing. If anyone wants to learn about work ethics and dedication, they should learn that from Warner. Off the field, he gets along nicely with everyone and tries to make the youngsters comfortable in the dressing room. He is quite a cool character to have around you.
In your IPL journey through all these years, who would you say has played the most significant role in your life?
I would say that I learnt a lot from Viru paaji (Virender Sehwag). He is obviously one of the greatest of this sport and I used to talk a lot to him to understand the game better.
Viru Paaji told me many things about my bowling which even I didn’t know. It helped me in figuring out what kind of a bowler I am and what I should do to be successful. He is someone who wouldn’t hesitate to talk to youngsters for an hour or even two. So he helped me a lot.
In 2017, you became the first bowler to dismiss all three of Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle in the same match. How did that moment feel like?
I don’t think I have told this anywhere before but, while going to sleep before that game, I had this strange thought in my mind about how good it could be if I can get all three of Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle out.
That was around four hours before we were going to leave for the Stadium and when I went to play in the evening, the exact same thing happened and I was adjudged the Man of the Match as well. These three are the greatest batsmen we have seen in this format and it was great to get all three of them out to win the match for my team.
You have proven your skills as a bowler throughout all these years, yet you haven’t played after your two T20Is vs Zimbabwe in 2015. Have you heard from the selectors during this period?
Not really. Actually, I had my shoulder operated right after I played for India in 2015 and wasn’t the same bowler after that. So there was no communication from the selectors during that period. That was, unfortunately, the bad part obviously. It was a big setback for me and my career. At that time, I was bowling at my peak and I was performing everywhere.
But then I had to sit out for two years and when I came back, I was struggling. It is very difficult for anyone to come back from a shoulder surgery and perform in the same way as before. That phase was scary but I am in a good shape and frame of mind right now. The last two or three years have been good for me and I am sure it will keep getting better.
Are you working on increasing your pace?
Yes, I have been working hard on my strength and fitness. Before I had my shoulder operated, I used to bowl around a speed of 135 kph. After the shoulder surgery, I lost my pace and rhythm. My pace dropped a lot in the 2016-17 season and it took me around two years to completely recover from the surgery. So, 2017 and 2018 went like that.
In the last couple of years, though, I feel that I have got my sharpness and rhythm back. I have been bowling much quicker now. Even in Lockdown, I worked very hard on my fitness and when I bowled in the nets I could feel that I am bowling a lot quicker than what I used to before.
Indian fast bowling is at its peak now and the competition is immense. Do you think a good IPL season here can push your name ahead of others for the next T20 WC.
I like to stay in the present. So I am not thinking about anything other than preparing for the IPL at the moment. I want to do well for my team in the IPL and if I am successful enough, the selectors are obviously there to notice it.
What goals have you set for yourself in this IPL season and what is going to be your approach to fulfill them?
No such goal but as I told you I want to do well. I want to approach things one game at a time and if I do well, I’ll see how far I can go after that.
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