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On Wednesday night, Akash Madhwal etched himself into IPL folklore. In the Eliminator in Chennai, he picked up 5 for 5, the joint-most economical IPL figures alongside Anil Kumble, to stun Lucknow Super Giants.
It was a spell of the kind he had always dreamt of when he used to mimic bowling actions at the project site where he was employed as a civil engineer. Perhaps this is what he meant when, after the game against Gujarat Titans in early May, where he dismissed Wriddhiman Saha, Shubman Gill and David Miller, he told the broadcaster: “These are not my best figures, my best is yet to come.”
Madhwal’s words reflected his quiet confidence. Last week, in a must-win game against Sunrisers Hyderabad, his four wickets and a terrific penultimate over was the difference between Mumbai having to chase 201, as opposed to 220. The highlights were his yorkers to dismiss a marauding Heinrich Klaasen and Harry Brook.
Coming from a middle-class family in Roorkee, Uttarakhand, Madhwal would see his neighbour, Rishabh, dedicate considerable time and effort towards training. While Madhwal, who went on to graduate with an engineering degree, casually played tennis-ball cricket with his friends, he would see Rishabh play with the hard ball.
When he saw Rishabh train under coach Avtar Singh around 2013-14, Madhwal too was inspired to give professional cricket a shot. Rishabh would soon leave Uttarakhand and move to Delhi. Madhwal would realise only much later that his neighbour was destined for greatness. The boy he had known as Rishabh all along would announce himself to the world as Rishabh Pant.
While Pant would move to Delhi to further his cricketing aspirations, Madhwal stayed back in Roorkee hoping to make something of his late initiation into the game. The turning point came in 2019 when Uttarakhand called for trials for the senior team in the second year of their existence.
Wasim Jaffer, who was roped in as one of the coaches, was impressed by the raw pace and natural ability when he shortlisted Madhwal to be part of the senior state camp. Two months later, he made his state team debut in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. And incredibly, within two years of playing with the red ball for the first time, he also made his Ranji Trophy debut.
In 2021, Madhwal was one of the reserve bowlers for Royal Challengers Bangalore for the UAE leg of the season. He had been told an opportunity could open up in the unfortunate event of an injury or a Covid case. That situation didn’t arise, but Madhwal, who only two years prior to that, was otherwise working as a planning engineer at a construction firm in Dehradun, thought he had lived his dream. After all, he had bowl to AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli.
“Simply being called by my first name by two superstars who I had seen on TV was special,” a sheepish Madhwal would tell the franchise website.
Madhwal was there on talent scout Malolan Rangarajan’s recommendation. Rangarajan had first seen him when he spent a season with Uttarakhand as a professional in their very first year since gaining the BCCI affiliation in 2018-19. Two years later, when he went back as a scout, he remembered being impressed with Madhwal’s arm speed and “deceptive” pace.
It turns out RCB weren’t the only team that had an eye on him, even though they let him go. CKM Dhananjay, Mumbai Indians’ video analyst who is also known as DJ within the camp, had watched Madhwal bowl at the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy in Dehradun and was immediately impressed. He had also received feedback from Anand Rajan, the former Madhya Pradesh seamer, who would later join Uttarakhand as bowling coach.
Madhwal was called up for a trial at Reliance’s facility in Navi Mumbai. The challenge was to quickly gauge his fitness levels. “He had been playing only tennis-ball cricket until 2018, so his physical conditioning to go through the rigours of a full season wasn’t there, so there had to be a lot of work done on him,” Rajan tells ESPNcricinfo.
“Akash was raw and had only played tennis-ball cricket, but he made up for it with a tremendous attitude. He bowled an excellent yorker. You could see he was skiddy, he was deceptive. As a batter, you couldn’t switch off because he would attack the stumps all the time.”
Once his fitness was up to optimum levels, Madhwal began working on his skills and continued to train at Reliance’s facility. He impressed the team management enough during that time that they signed him mid-season as a replacement for Suryakumar Yadav during IPL 2022. At the time, he had picked up 15 wickets in 15 T20s.
When he first came into the camp, he was asked by one of the coaches what he liked the most about fast bowling. Madhwal is believed to have said, “Dande udaana [making stumps fly]”. This is something he has learnt from tennis-ball cricket, which his coach Avtar elucidates well.
“The margin of error in tennis-ball cricket is very less and there is a lot of use of yorkers and variations,” Avtar says. “In tennis-ball cricket, due to the lightness of the ball, the speed of the ball decreases when it reaches the batsman, so the bowler tries to bowl harder. A tennis ball requires more strength from the shoulders and body. This gets bowlers used to extra load and when they play leather-ball cricket, it helps. Akash did the same.”
Ahead of the 2022 season, Madhwal was handed the T20 captaincy of Uttarakhand for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. His attitude to learn and carry a team that had been in the news for their association politics quickly earned him the respect of his team-mates. Manish Jha, who came in as head coach, immediately knew he had a man to do the job.
Even Aditya Tare, Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy-winning captain who moved to Uttarakhand as a professional at the start of the 2022-23 season, spoke glowingly of Madhwal’s tenacity. “Leading for the first time, after every game, used to organise get-togethers for the team,” Tare says. “It was solely his initiative and the entire team appreciated that. From the outside, it may appear, ‘Oh, but it’s just a get-together, what’s the big deal’. Uttarakhand didn’t have that culture.
“They were a new team; players would come and go. But this got the team together, spent time, his initiative during Mushtaq Ali. For Akash to come up and plan this, it helped create a great vibe. The way he handled three professional players and got them onboard, and used our experience was extremely welcoming.
“There were many occasions where he would talk tactics with me, sometimes he would let me take over while he would field at fine leg after a spell. It struck me that he had no ego issues and was ready to put the team first. Having been a later bloomer himself, he understood the importance of giving younger players more time.”
Until now, Madhwal was a bit of a novelty. Now that he is in the record books, and there’s enough footage of what he has done, teams are likely to come prepared. Madhwal argues he will be equally prepared.
What he will also possibly get in Ahmedabad in his quest to deliver Mumbai a sixth IPL crown is plenty of backing, a great platform on the grandest stage and, possibly, some tips from Jasprit Bumrah, the man whose boots he has filled so admirably this season.
A version of this piece was published first on the ESPNcricinfo Hindi website here.