There is a whistling sound a ball makes when it comes out of the hand well. When it has just enough revolutions, when it has left the fingers at just the right release point, when the action has a solid follow through on it. Shreyas Gopal would have heard it on Tuesday night.
I know what you are thinking; it’s impossible to hear anything in the din of an IPL match, where umpires need an earpiece just to hear what’s happening at the other end, and where captains communicate with fielders through hand signals that look like PT exercises. I grant you, you’re right. Maybe it is less of a sound and more of a feel. Maybe the sound, heard many times before in quiet practice, simply plays in your head.
I imagine Shreyas Gopal heard that sound in the seventh over, when he bowled a wrong ‘un to almost beat Virat Kohli’s defences and pin him LBW in front of the stumps. Kohli wasn’t expecting another googly immediately, but he should have been; once a bowler has gotten a taste of that perfect feel, he is nearly compelled to chase it again.
The follow-up was even better. That same feel from the hand, slightly fuller, drawing Kohli into a drive and then rushing through the gap between bat and pad. Blue stumps turned red, and Shreyas’ reaction said a lot about who he is; disbelief more than jubilation, belying the child-like approach with which he goes about his cricket.
“I feel really lucky at the moment,” he said immediately after he added AB de Villiers and Shimron Hetmyer to his list of victims. The reaction to the dismissal of de Villiers was just as endearingly unbelievable. Shreyas, reportedly, bowled to the Indian team as a net bowler during the 2011 World Cup. Now he was discussing the dismissals of two of the best living batsmen. “These are world-class players at the end of the day, and you don’t really stand much of a chance,” he went on to say.
But if you’re a serious follower of Indian cricket, Shreyas’ performances will not be as incredulous to you as they seemed to be to him, even though he did pretty much the same against RCB last year. Shreyas’ father Gopal Ramaswamy, a club cricketer with a two-decade-long career, ensured Shreyas subsisted on cricket since his childhood. Now Shreyas has multiple Ranji Trophy titles to his name, a hat-trick against Rest of India, and four first-class hundreds, with a top score of 150, and more than 200 wickets in all domestic cricket.
According to J Arunkumar, the Karnataka coach writing in the Wisden India almanac 2015, Shreyas’ inclusion in the Karnataka Ranji team in the 2013-14 season was the ‘turning point in the campaign’, helping Karnataka break a 15-year title drought and win the next two titles. He was a key figure in Karnataka’s win in this year’s Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy as well, taking 13 wickets from eight games. Now, after years of putting in anonymous performances in domestic cricket, Shreyas has finally had a moment that could open a door for him in the India 'A' setup.
So where’s he been all these years? A player who averages 35 with the bat and 26 with the ball in first-class cricket, who bowls unconventional leg-spin in the image of his idol Anil Kumble, and can turn the ball both ways, should be someone who franchises fight over. But Shreyas spent the first five seasons of the IPL mostly on the Mumbai Indians bench, playing just a handful of games.
Rajasthan picking him up in the 2018 auction has allowed him regular game-time, and his showing against RCB last season shone some spotlight on him. Still, for a franchise whose mentor is one of the best spinners in the world, you wouldn’t expect Shreyas to be the lead spinner in the side. But this season he has grown into the role, despite not being used as well. His economy so far stands at just 5.58 runs per over, and yet he has not bowled his full quota in two of the three previous matches. Perhaps the management too believed that in this annual cricketing crucible, Shreyas didn’t stand much of a chance.
This performance should change that, and we may see RR captain Ajinkya Rahane leaning a little more on Shreyas now. “This is one of my biggest days and biggest moments in my cricketing journey,” Shreyas said. When you get the likes of Kohli and de Villiers out once in the IPL, you get applause. When you do it twice, you get noticed.