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May 12, 2023, Wankhede Stadium. Akash Madhwal, a virtually unknown fast bowler from a tennis-ball background in Uttarakhand, was bowling to Shubman Gill, a generational talent. He skids one past Gill’s defences to send the off stump cartwheeling.
It wasn’t quite Jasprit Bumrah vs Virat Kohli, but it marked the arrival of another irresistible talent via Mumbai’s scouting network. In the absence of both Bumrah and Jofra Archer, Madhwal has seamlessly transitioned into Mumbai’s go-to bowler. He was their go-to bowler across phases in the Eliminator against Lucknow Super Giants in Chennai.
He returned scarcely believable figures of 3.3-0-5-5 – the best in a playoff game in the IPL – to KO the Super Giants. Madhwal has a lot of things going for him in T20 cricket. He can get the ball to skid and zip through from a quick-arm action and the ball doesn’t rise as much as batters expect it to. And he has excellent control over the yorker, which he honed during his tennis-ball cricket days in Uttarakhand.
All of those skills were on bright display on Wednesday night. Ayush Badoni was done in by the skid and (low) bounce, as was Ravi Bishnoi. Mohsin Khan fell to the perfect yorker. But it was the wickets of Prerak Mankad in the powerplay and Nicholas Pooran in the 10th over that stood out.
After Rohit Sharma had whisked Hrithik Shokeen from deep point to deep third, Madhwal hid one away from Mankad’s swinging and had him holing out to deep third. Madhwal was playing only his seventh IPL game but was able to execute a plan in a high-pressure scenario. Rohit and Mumbai love such bowlers.
The dismissal of Pooran was even more remarkable. Bowling from around the wicket, Madhwal tricked the left-hander into playing for the inward angle, but the ball straightened late off the seam from a Test-match length to kiss the outside edge. Super Giants never recovered from that body blow.
Madhwal had started IPL 2022 as a net bowler with Mumbai and was added to the main squad after Suryakumar Yadav was sidelined with injury. He didn’t get a game last season and didn’t start this season, but he has played every match for Mumbai since he made his debut for them against Punjab Kings in Mohali earlier this month. Seventy five of his 129 balls have come in the powerplay and death. Rohit trusts him that much.
“Yeah, look he was part of the season last year as a support bowler,” Rohit said after Mumbai confirmed their place in the second qualifier. “We drafted him into the squad last year but [he] didn’t get to play. But we knew what he had. Once Jofra was gone, we knew we needed somebody to bowl at the back end and with him, having seen him enough, I was confident that he can get the job done for us. Has a lot of skills, a good attitude and a lot of character as well.
“So, that was very pleasing to see about him and talking about the scouts, over so many years we have seen so many guys come through Mumbai Indians and have gone on to play for India and have done well as well. So, a lot of credit to the guys at the back end, sitting behind the scenes and getting the job done for us.”
The role clarity and team culture at Mumbai helped ease Madhwal into the side, according to Rohit. “The first and the foremost [thing] is it’s important to make them feel special and make them feel part of the team,” he said. “They play a lot of domestic cricket but this is a different ball game with so many people here. There is a lot of pressure as well. So my job as a skipper is just to make sure they feel comfortable on the ground. When they are about to execute what they have to execute with the bat or ball, our job – myself and the coaching staff – is to make sure they’re very clear in their roles. As long as you make it very clear for them, that’s all you want.”
The Eliminator in Chennai ended with Rohit patting Madhwal on his head and wrapping him in a hug under the fireworks as Mumbai progressed to the second Qualifier.
“Rohit bhaiya (brother) knew that yorkers were my strength but during the nets and practice matches, he also found that I can bowl well with the new ball,” Madhwal said after the game. “So Rohit had an idea as to how to use me as the situation warranted. I’m also very chilled out and relaxed and I’m having fun because I’m pursuing my passion.”
Madhwal has given up engineering – and his job – to become a professional cricketer. In his first full IPL season, he has already turned heads with the ball and his composure. On Friday, he has another chance to knock Gill over in Ahmedabad and put Mumbai on the verge of a sixth IPL title.
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo