Washington Sundar goes from Most Valuable Player to Most Injured Player


Washington Sundar had just begun to enjoy life in Lancashire. The wickets were piling on; in four games, he nabbed 11 at an average of 25, healthy numbers for someone considered a part-time spinner in first-class cricket. Last week, he produced arguably the ball of the month when an off-break of his spun devilishly from outside off-stump to sneak through the defences of Kent’s Jordon Cox. The runs — he is self-admittedly a batsman who can bowl — too had started to flow. He struck an instant chord with the Old Trafford faithful — he is sociable and chatty, engages the fans as well as junior cricketers.

The English summer became sunnier when he was picked for India’s fly-by-night ODI series in Zimbabwe. And then, inevitably, his summer of content, turned dark. He hurt his left shoulder when attempting to block a boundary-bound ball during a match against Worcestershire in the Royal England Cup, five days before his flight to Harare. Though the injury is not too severe to keep him out of cricket for a long time, the 22-year-old lost another comeback avenue, another shot at emphasising his explosive talents.

It has been the curse of Washington. Every time he seems to nail a spot in the team, in all formats, every time he unzips another dimension of his game, every time the pundits cast him as the next big player from the country, he courts one injury or the other. Before the tour to England last year, a Mohammed Siraj short ball during a net session fractured his finger. Six months later, just before the tour to South Africa, he got infected with Covid-19. As soon as he recovered and was readying for the encounters against Sri Lanka, he pulled a hamstring. Then during the IPL, he injured his finger again. And now the shoulder injury that has jeopardised his Zimbabwe tour. It has been 15 months of injuries and rehabs, of treatment tables and painkillers, with a bit of serious cricket squeezed in.

The lengthy list of injuries meant he has not batted in a Test innings after his 96 not out against England at Motera in 2021, not featured in a T20I since the one against England at the same venue in the same year, missed the World Cup where his skills would have been priceless, and could figure in just three 50-over games against the West Indies in a rare injury-free spell.

Immense potential

In a cruel twist to his career, he has moved from being the Most Valuable Player, according to former India head coach Ravi Shastri, to the Most Injured Player in the span of one-and-a-half years. The promise he holds is immense — if he could improve his bowling by a notch, he could evolve into a genuine all-rounder in Tests; if he could step up his batting, he could be a sterling all-rounder in white-ball cricket. As it is, he is a batting all-rounder in Tests and bowling all-rounder in 50- and 20-over cricket.

He has yet to play a head-turning knock in white-ball cricket, but in his few red-ball outings, he has furnished ample proof of his composure and adaptability. In Brisbane, he tamed the bouncing ball without any obvious discomfort; in Chennai and Ahmedabad, he conquered the spinning ball without breaking a sweat. His numbers in white-ball cricket are humble, but the talent is obvious. “He has the ability and he belongs at this level and he can go a long way. If he could focus on his bowling, India could have a very good number six for all conditions,” Shastri had once observed.

Before the tour to England last year, a Mohammed Siraj short ball during a net session fractured his finger. Six months later, just before the tour to South Africa, he got infected with Covid-19. (File)

There are arguably better batsmen in the country, but none, alas, can bowl. Washington can, and it’s this dimension that makes his stock skyrocket. One of India’s glaring cracks over the last decade — one that has arguably stood between them being world-class yet not World Cup-winning class — has been the absence of a batman who could bowl spin. Once upon a time, India had plenty — Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Sachin Tendulkar and even Suresh Raina at times for instance, or Shastri himself and Kris Srikkanth in the preceding era. At their best, they have won games, and often filled in for a specialist bowler who was enduring a bad day. Washington’s bowling is more multidimensional than all these names — he is thriftier, could take the new ball, is familiar to Powerplay tunes, can bowl in the middle overs as well as at the death. A T20 economy rate of 6.91 is worth gold in this day and age. Thrift is not his only currency — he picks wickets, mostly with the bounce he generates with his height and over-spin. There is understated subtlety – he has various release points and cleverly changes his pace. He turns the odd ball. Some stop at batsmen, most skid on.

Should his batting in white-ball cricket too come of age —he is 22 after all — he could be the real deal. He would bring immense flexibility to the playing eleven. On a spin-friendly track, he affords India to pick three spinners without compromising on the batting or the pace-bowling department. On a seaming deck, his presence ensures that the spin dimension is not weakened at the expense of an extra seamer. To pick an extra batsman, or an extra bowler, Washington provides the flexibility to alter the team’s permutations according to the conditions. He and a fully-fit Hardik Pandya would make the batting as well as the bowling line-up longer, the twin axes that keeps the team’s balance intact. Add his on-field acrobatics and you get a valuable modern-day white-ball utility package. More so as the 50-over World Cup at home is just a year away and Ravindra Jadeja’s consistency in white-ball cricket has been waning.

Focus on fitness

Washington could be what his mentor Shastri was to his team for a decade — a player for any role, any condition, any situation. “Better than me,” was Shastri’s answer when asked about whether he sees a bit of him in Washington. “I think Washy has far more natural ability than I had and should bat at No. 4 for his state in every format,” he had said.

Washington could be what his mentor Shastri was to his team for a decade — a player for any role, any condition, any situation. (File)

But the appreciation comes with a caveat, a most significant one. “I think it is up to him really to do the hard yards on fitness. No excuse. He can’t depend on X, Y, Z. He has to look at himself in the mirror and say I want to work hard and I want to be the leading all-rounder in Indian cricket over the next three years. And he can do it. Easy,” Shastri had remarked on ESPNCricinfo’s TimeOut.

As much as working on his fitness, Washington needs to be careful of not injuring himself. Hurting a finger when batting at the nets owes to clumsy judgment; injuring the shoulder when diving stems from poor diving technique; spinners tearing hamstrings betrays a lack of fitness. It is the time, like Shastri had said, “to look in the mirror” and “work hard.” So that he can see more sunny days on the field than bleary days in rehabs.

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