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By Partab Ramchand
Is he the next best thing to happen to Indian cricket as far as spin bowling is concerned? One must be careful in assessing how good a player is based on performances in the IPL but at the risk of being proved wrong I am willing to stick my neck out and predict that Rahul Sharma will make it big now that he has forced himself into the Indian ODI squad.
The 24-year-old Jalandhar born leg spinner is suddenly a much talked about cricketer. He shot into prominence in this year’s IPL bagging 16 wickets for a struggling Pune Warriors team with a miserly economy rate of 5.46 which was the best among bowlers who have played more than five matches. But this was not the only thing going for him. He was able to extract both turn and bounce and what’s more was remarkably accurate. Creating an indelible impression by his subtle bowling skills he was regarded as having an outside chance of making the squad for the Caribbean in June. He just missed out but there was never any doubt in his mind that his time would come. And now that it has he is not the kind to let go this opportunity. Talented and ambitious Rahul is very keen on making a mark on the game. The Kris Srikkanth led selection committee deserves kudos for having the foresight to pick him. Given the English batsmen’s traditional discomfiture against leg spin he should straightaway be in the playing eleven and not allowed to languish on the bench.
Rahul first caught the eye during Pune Warriors’ first match against Mumbai. He went for just 14 runs in his three overs and took one wicket. But that one wicket was that of Sachin Tendulkar who was suitably impressed. Rahul says the great man congratulated him after the match. "He told me that I am bowling at my best. It is the best compliment that one can receive."
The improvement in Rahul’s bowling over the past year is best reflected by figures. Last season, he took just five wickets and went at over eight runs an over in the six matches he played for Deccan Chargers. He attributes some of his success to the advice he has received from Harbhajan Singh. ``I had a chat with Bhajji when he came to Jalandhar and he told me that my strong point is the bounce I can extract," said Rahul in a recent interview. He has also received similar advice from Punjab coach Bhupinder Singh who says he has told him to hit the pitch so that he gets bounce. According to Bhupinder he is very similar to Anil Kumble and can be groomed to be a good limited overs bowler.
Given his height (he is over six feet tall) the bounce comes naturally to Rahul. But he is also working on bowling a wicket-to-wicket line and using as many variations as possible. ``You can’t be predictable in Twenty20’’ he says. Obviously he is a thinking man’s bowler.
Rahul had it tough in the early days as there was no coach to tell him what to bowl and how to bowl. He is largely a self made man for he picked up the finer points of the game just by seeing senior players on television as well as on the field. Gradual improvement saw him being selected for the Indian Under-19 team for the Asia Cup in 2006. He did well enough to convince his father who was not keen on his son playing cricket to let him pursue the game seriously.
Rahul has also had to contend with off field issues that almost threatened to cut short his career. A sudden bout of Bell's Palsy meant that his future was suddenly in danger. This was the time when he was with the Deccan Chargers. He was going out for a practice session and felt numb on the right side. He was unable to sight the ball properly and everything was a blur. The doctor advised him complete rest and he is grateful to the Deccan Chargers management who took care of everything.
All that is past now and Rahul these days is a picture of confidence. He attacks the batsman by making him play thanks mainly to his accuracy which is his forte. During the IPL match against Rajasthan Royals he met up with Shane Warne who gave him tips to bowl to different batsmen. He is eager to learn and has picked his teachers well – Warne, Harbhajan and Kumble who is his idol. As an investment for the future Rahul is a blue chip.