“[My] Progress is gradual and slow, someone like me who wasn't exceptionally talented, I had to build my game from the ground up. So I made mistakes and then found the process of what works for me,” said Harshal Patel after receiving the Player of the Match award on his international debut for India.
The standout thing about these words is how it captures his whole career, from his U19 days to the long journey to the international debut, including the hiccups in between.
“Progress is gradual and slow.. ”
Talk about a step by step transition. Harshal had a big decision to make back in his teen years. When his parents were set to settle in New Jersey, his coach, Tarak Trivedi wanted him to stay back to nurture his cricketing potential. Trivedi, and Harshal himself, were able to convince the people that mattered.
"The year my parents left [India], I had a very good time in Under-17s - I had taken 32 wickets in five games. So I told my dad to give me some time to keep working on my cricket in India. He told me he'd give me two years, during which I was to work only on my cricket and see where it took me. Now I'm here,” said Harshal after an 8-wicket haul in his debut Ranji season.
Harshal was picked in India’s 2010 U19 World Cup squad, alongside KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal. The decision to stay back was the first step towards a professional cricket career, seeking permission from the parents. It was a big deal in the era when IPL didn’t exist as a cash printing machine for everyone involved.
In Gujarat, Harshal was not perceived as a first-class prospect. The reason was probably the placid pitches of the western most state of India. He was wicketless in the two matches in the U19 World Cup but the tournament had a far-reaching impact on his career. Anirudh Chaudhary, the team manager at the U19 World Cup, was also the incumbent Haryana Cricket Association head at the time. With a couple of injuries in the camp, Chaudhary brought Harshal to Haryana. Three cheers for serendipity.
The right-arm pacer thrived in the north Indian conditions which aided his natural outswingers. He amassed consecutive 8-wicket hauls, both in the knock-out stages of the tournament, playing a pivotal part in Haryana’s run to the semi-finals. Thus, he walked another flight on the staircase of slow progression.
In the next step, Harshal was signed in IPL, by Royal Challengers Bangalore, but never cemented his place. He played 12 matches in 2012, none in 2013, three in 2014, 15 in 2015, five in 2016. In 2017, he was sent home midway in the season before being recalled for RCB’s last league game where he was the Player of the Match with a three-wicket haul.
In 2018, he was was picked by Delhi Daredevils (now Capitals) but it was the same old story - 12 matches in three seasons. Harshal was eventually traded back to RCB.
You see the story here? After more than 10 years of domestic cricket, he was nowhere near an India cap. He was not a regular for his IPL franchise. It was easy to forget that he ever featured in an U19 World Cup. No one made a fuss about his transfer. Except, it proved to be a highly significant personnel shift ahead of the season.
Not only did he emerge as the highest wicket-taker of the 2021 season, Harshal levelled with Dwayne Bravo for the all-time season record of 32 wickets. Despite playing a game less than Bravo’s tally of 16 matches in 2013, Harshal could have gone past the Caribbean legend had Devdutt Padikkal not dropped a sitter. A loss knocked RCB out of the competition, ending Harshal’s glorious run.
Nevertheless, after years of wait, Harshal Patel transformed into Purple Patel. It opened the doors for an India debut. The dream for which he opted to stay closer to his coach than his parents was finally transpiring. When it did, he turned it into a dream debut in Ranchi.
“...I am not exceptionally talented”
It doesn’t always happen that an athlete accepts his shortcomings openly but that is where Harshal is different. In the presser, he admitted he never had the raw pace or the most perfect bowling action.
"I will never be able to bowl consistently at higher than 140. That's something I realised and I started working on other things, other skills that I needed to do well at this level," he explained.
He termed his bowling action biomechanically imperfect by the virtue of lateral flexion, a phenomenon which tilts a body part to the side. “I always wanted to correct that, because I was told it was injury prone. Also the height of the delivery gets reduced with lateral flexion and I won't get a lot of bounce and all those things,” he said in the presser after the second T20I.
However, Harshal has now learned to use it to his advantage. “What I realised after playing 7-8 years of domestic cricket is, that lateral flexion gave me an angle which was difficult for batters to line up to. That made my slower balls more effective. If I talk about red-ball cricket, that big angle into the batsman allows me to bowl outswingers from a very tight line and beat the batters when it straightens,” said the 30-year old.
“Built the game from ground up, found what works for me”
From exploiting the damp conditions in the north of India to altering himself to a variation bowler, Harshal made changes in his bowling style, figuring out different things that work for him. He developed an immaculate off-cutter and back-of-the-hand slower one. But world cricket offers enough examples of variation bowlers over the last decade who were deciphered at some point. Harshal was put to a similar test when dew formed in the first innings itself on his T20I debut and New Zealand had a flying start.
“Two of my main weapons in the death overs were gone for today. But at the same time, I knew how to adapt to the situation. It was a bit of a double-paced wicket with variable bounce. I wanted batters to hit to the square boundaries, and that strategy worked,” Harshal demonstrated.
Harshal has the full package of slower balls. He makes the ball almost stop on the pitch like he is Keanu Reeves from The Matrix. He deviates it off the deck. But he also has a lethal dip on his deliveries that is nearly impossible to counter. That is how he engineered his hat-trick against Mumbai Indians, foxing Kieron Pollard and Rahul Chahar with full length deliveries that went under their straight bat.
In addition, it is tough for the batsmen to set themselves up for his slower ones. In IPL 2021 and the the two T20Is combined, less than 60% of his deliveries were recorded under 125 kph. His quicker balls are not quick enough, yet the distribution only adds to the task of the batsmen.
RCB laid out the perfect blueprint to optimize Harshal’s value. In IPL 2021, Harshal bowled 71% of his overs in the second half of the innings. India have employed him in a similar role in the T20Is against New Zealand, bowling five of his seven overs between overs 11 to 20. With the next T20 World Cup 11 months away, Harshal, at present, is the closest to be Jasprit Bumrah’s designated partner in the death overs.
Not to forget, he remains to be a highly under utilized batsman. He is Haryana’s first-choice opener in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Since 2018, he averages 27.5 in the competition at a strike-rate of 164.8. In the 2018 IPL, he struck Dwayne Bravo for four sixes, three of them in the last over.
Harshal reiterated the gravity of patience in the press conference. "People don't talk enough about patience. Never, at any moment (during years of domestic cricket), I felt that the dream is running away from me,” he said.
It took Shikhar Dhawan six years to make his India debut after his U19 World Cup appearance. For Ambati Rayudu, the span was nine years. Harshal Patel has taken a little more than a decade. But he has fine-tuned himself throughout his journey. He now appears to be a finished product with a wise head on his shoulders set for a long time under the sun.