In more ways than one, Washington Sundar shares a sporting journey similar to that of English footballer Jack Wilshere. Both made their club debut at 16 and international debut around the same age at either end of 17.
That isn’t the only comparison. Wilshere was heralded as a generational talent for the longest time. Washington is no different. Another thing common between them is that injuries have haunted them both. While injuries cut Wilshere’s talented career short, it has repeatedly threatened to dim Washington’s chances since his debut.
"He (Washington) is going to be one of India's leading all-rounders. He is a serious cricketer, that kid. He is still very young, he has got to understand his own game, how good a player he is,” Ravi Shastri couldn’t stop heaping praises on Washington in ESPNCricinfo’s show, T20 Time:Out back in 2022.
Unless you live under a rock, Washington is a name you would have heard repeatedly. It is also a name that would make you wonder, why? Why does the national team, time and again, come back calling for his services? What makes the off-spinning all-rounder stand out?
Washington has married the best of two unique worlds in Indian cricket.
Not only is he a left-handed batter, which has already made careers of several youngsters, he is also an able off-spinner. Now, an off-spinner isn’t a unique commodity in India. There have been as many as 142 off-spinners in the country since 2021 (List-A) who have at least bowled an over.
But none have more wickets than Washington - 33 wickets. Additionally, Washington has this uncanny ability to play as a defensive spinner, conceding only 4.8 RPO in the last three years while still attacking the batters.
It was evidently visible earlier last year when the off-spinner returned from an injury at the Deodhar Trophy. In Puducherry, with the wickets having a slight grip, the Tamil Nadu off-spinner picked up eight wickets for South Zone, averaging 26.1, while being miserly conceding runs at only 4.1 per over.
In the final, he picked up three crucial wickets - Saurabh Tiwary, Riyan Parag and Kumar Kushagra - bowling immaculate line and length. Even in the third ODI against South Africa, Washington picked up two wickets, showing his ability as a controlling spinner in different conditions.
That’s something that has always been Washington's USP, his ability to bowl in tough situations across different phases - be it the new ball or the death-overs. That already has put the off-spinner in his own category with just one of his skill sets.
Now comes the other: his batting. On the Tamil Nadu circuit, Washington has been known as a batter who can bowl a few overs for the longest time. But his white-ball exploits with the bat on the international circuit haven’t been that evident.
Across both T20Is and ODIs, the Tamil Nadu all-rounder has scored just two 50s.
So, is it worth it for India to keep investing in ‘Project Washington’ ahead of the 2024 T20 World Cup?
The answer might not be in plain black and white. On paper, Washington’s form in the shortest format is a big NO. Since 2022, there is nothing to prove that the off-spinner could be an upgrade over the competitors, including Axar Patel.
In all T20s since 2022, the Tamil Nadu off-spinner has picked up 22 wickets, averaging 41. In fact, one of his strengths, his ability to contain runs, too has been missing, with an economy rate of 7.7. When you consider the different leagues that he has played in during this time, his numbers take a big drop.
Last year, at the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), Washington was a total flop with the ball, picking up only one wicket in the six games he had played, averaging 119. Even with the bat, barring one fifty that he scored against Chepauk Super Gillies, the southpaw had quite a scratchy tournament.
At the Indian Premier League (IPL) level, the numbers further take a tumble. Neither was his batting fluent, with an average of 14.64 and a strike-rate of 124.8, nor was his bowling with nine wickets, giving runs away at 8.4 an over. It gets worse at the 2023 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (SMAT), where Washington went wicketless, conceding runs at 7.35 an over, having bowled 17 overs.
It wasn’t just that, even if you take First-Class cricket, his numbers are not quite worthy of an Indian call-up, with a batting average of 20.91 and a bowling average of 31.5. But this is not to say that the Tamil Nadu all-rounder isn’t a generational talent.
Then why does India keep going back to him?
The promise. The promise of the 24-year-old fulfilling all of the promises that his career comes with.
It is performances like 2/22 and 50 off 28 balls against New Zealand that keep the selectors excited. It is the way he started against New Zealand, with a reverse sweep for a four. It is the promise that Washington’s three half-centuries in the longest format will be a more regular occurrence in the shorter formats.
It is the promise that he could serve the national team for a long time, considering his age. It is the reality that not many off-spinners in the country have been that effective.
It is that the all-rounder can finally help India have the ‘right’ balance going into a T20 World Cup despite warming the bench for all of India’s last seven T20Is before the Afghanistan series. It is that promise that has kept the all-rounder forever in the loop.
But will all of that promise finally come to fruition?
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All-rounders: A conundrum that continues to haunt India in ODIs
Would Washington Sundar be a huge miss for India at T20WC?