Even as budding youngsters are caught in the crossfire of the periodic obsession of fans wanting to discover the ‘next big thing’ in Indian cricket ahead of an Indian Premier League (IPL) auction, veterans are doing the hard yards on its domestic circuit to reclaim their stake at the top level.
After being an integral part of Karnataka for 11 seasons and winning multiple titles across formats with the state team, leg-spinner Shreyas Gopal is undergoing a career rejuvenation at Kerala.
The 30-year-old’s four-wicket haul against Maharashtra in the Vijay Hazare Trophy pre-quarterfinal on Saturday in Rajkot was a reminder of the value he brings to a team.
“I know the IPL is coming up, and I need to be delivering with some good performances. The good part is that I have been getting some wickets... I am feeling confident about the way the ball is coming out of my hand. I will be lying if I say that I am not thinking about the auction. I do want to get into a team and contribute for whichever team I represent,” Shreyas told Sportstar while maintaining that his priority was to help Kerala win the 50-over title.
One of the sharpest turners of the ball in the country, there is little doubt over Shreyas’ skill. However, the unforgiving nature of the sport is such that he fell out of favour with IPL franchises after a couple of underwhelming seasons.
In 2019, he was the leading wicket-taker for Rajasthan Royals (RR), where he spent four years, and his claim to fame was a hat-trick against Royal Challengers Bangalore that included the prized scalps of Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Marcus Stoinis.
He had a relatively quiet season in 2020, with 10 wickets in 14 games, and slipped down the pecking order in 2021, where he was wicketless in three matches. He was picked by Sunrisers Hyderabad at the 2022 auction at his base price and made it to the eleven just once before finding no takers at the bidding in 2023.
However, following a fruitful Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy campaign with Kerala, where he topped the charts for Kerala with 12 wickets in just seven matches, and an impressive run in the ongoing tournament, Shreyas feels he can see glimpses of his heyday in the IPL.
“With RR, those four-five years were great. I was their lead spinner for a couple of years. I got a lot of wickets and there was a phase where I wasn’t getting as many wickets. I would say I didn’t bowl very well. The way I am bowling now is giving me glimpses and giving me more of that feel of 2019-2020, where I was getting a lot of wickets. That gives me a smile when I go to bed,” he said.
Shreyas isn’t just content picking wickets by the bucketload but has a stomach for a fight and wants to bowl what he terms are the ‘important overs’.
“What makes me happy is that I am getting to bowl the important overs. Even in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, I bowled post 15 overs. Even here, they are looking to make me bowl one or two overs in the last 10. Sanju [Samson] is always having that thing of having me bowl at the death. Some games come off and some don’t, and he himself has told me that that’s fine,” Shreyas added.
Against Maharashtra on Saturday, Shreyas was thrown the ball with openers Om Bhosale and Kaushal Tambe threatening to take the game away. The wily spinner, sensing there was spin on offer, responded by foxing Bhosale, who looked in ominous form. He flighted one that spun across the left-hander to induce an outside edge to the short third-man fielder. In the previous over, his direct hit had accounted for Tambe.
Shreyas believes that a captain’s backing is key and goes a long way in boosting the morale of a leg-spinner, whose craft is subtle, and his slightest indiscretion can lead to an avalanche of runs.
“I remember one person, I don’t want to take his name, who said, ‘Even if you go for 40 runs in four overs, but you can give me three wickets, there will be two bowlers who will go at under 30 and they [opposition] will still end up with 160-170.’ That is the confidence a leg-spinner needs.
“I really like the fact that some captains back leg-spin and are okay with a few extra runs, but at the end of the tournament you will get seven or eight wickets more,” he said.
Asked if playing with two new balls and just four fielders outside the 30-yard circle had made it that much harder for bowlers to operate in one-day cricket, Shreyas said that it is a double-edged sword.
“The singles are harder to get because you have the extra man in. You then have to play the big shots more often, so the chances of a wicket are more. It kind of weighs on both ends but on wickets like these it can be quite a challenge for the bowler,” he reckoned.
Other than being Kerala’s second-highest wicket-taker in the ongoing tournament, Shreyas also chipped in with three crucial cameos with the bat, including a half-century in a losing cause against Railways.
Hailed as one of the most technically correct batters going around the circuit, Shreyas, who also has five First-Class centuries to his name, says he ‘thinks like a batsman’ and wants to be scoring more than just the odd 15-20 runs that are typically expected from a lower middle-order batter.
Though Shreyas says his decision to give batting more thought has little to do with boosting his prospects of securing an IPL deal, he believes only all-rounders whose stronger suit isn’t batting will be adversely impacted by the Impact Player rule.
So, for now, Shreyas is thinking more like a bowler in terms of preparing for the batting depth that the Impact Player provides, which he says will force him to be ‘one step ahead’.
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