Washington Sundar, with six international matches under his belt, may be a work in progress. But there is no getting away from one truly striking aspect of his cricket: The youngster has a remarkable ability to instantly scale up to the demands of a higher standard.
This is not just unusual; it is extremely rare. By and large, cricketers take a while to come to terms with a better standard. They need time to assess their own ability vis-a-vis that of a higher class of batting, bowling and fielding. Often, this sudden jump in standards would overwhelm them to the point that they would need leeway and gradual grooming to be able to perform. This is one reason why registering a century on debut, be it in Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, ODI or Test cricket is such a momentous, cherished achievement.
In the recent past, Mohammed Siraj, Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer and others have struggled to deliver simply because they have not been able to instantly make the big leap from domestic to international cricket.
In contrast, the tall 18-year-old off-spinner Sundar has been a stunning revelation. Extraordinarily, his primary claim to fame was not bowling, but his batting. And yet, in six international matches he has not faced a single delivery!
On the other hand, his bowling, which was just a passing fad to overcome the boredom of fielding during net sessions, has taken the cricketing world by storm! None more emphatically than the game-changing haul of 3-for-22 from four overs against Bangladesh at the Premadasa Stadium on Wednesday.
Sundar made a mark as left-handed opening batsman and was chosen to play for India Under-19 in that role. He top scored with 56 in the tri-nation final as India Under-19 beat Sri Lanka Under- 19 by five wickets. He and his partner Pant (35) had added 89 runs for the first wicket to set the team on victory path.
Within a few months of that, his state team Tamil Nadu blooded him in a Ranji Trophy encounter against Mumbai. The 16-year-old opening batsman was not overawed by the debut or opponents. Instead, he made a patient 40 and stitched together an invaluable century opening partnership with former Test opener Abhinav Mukund in the low-scoring encounter.
That Ranji debut was an important milestone for the family for he had accomplished what his father had only dreamt of. His father, M Sundar, was a good all-rounder in the TNCA League and had made it to the Tamil Nadu Ranji probables, but never into the playing eleven. Thus the father, who had a big hand in coaching the son, vicariously enjoyed the latter’s Ranji Trophy debut.
Sundar’s father, who hailed from a very poor family in Chennai, was fortunate that his childhood cricket-playing exploits on Triplicane beach had caught the eyes of PD Washington, an ex-army man who lived in the same locality.
The soldier liked what he saw and took it upon himself to fund the boy’s schooling and cricket. He lived to see his ward play good league cricket and make it to the state team’s Ranji Trophy probables. However, he passed away in 1999. Subsequently, when M Sundar and his wife were blessed with a child, they named him Washington in memory of the mentor.
Washington Sundar, who was coached by former TN batsman M Senthilnathan, soon registered his first century in first class cricket: 159 vs Tripura in Ranji Trophy.
By then he was already making waves with his bowling. He dismissed Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell while giving away 23 runs in his eight overs for Board President’s XI against the visiting Australian team.
His Duleep Trophy debut season too was a huge success. His brilliant all-round display in the final (88 & 42; 5 for 94 and 6 for 87) won the championship for his team.
His biggest break though came before that when Rising Pune Supergiant, an IPL franchise, inducted him as a replacement for the injured Ravichandran Ashwin. Sundar confessed that he was nervous when skipper Smith told him he would be making his debut.
But he bowled very well, especially in the powerplay overs, to reputed big hitters David Warner and Shikhar Dhawan. His tight bowling caught the eye and fast forwarded his progress.
Sundar, because he imparts so much of spin on the new ball, often gets the off spin to swerve away in the air. This catches the right-handed batsmen napping. Rest of the time he bowls a tight length.
On Wednesday, against Bangladesh, he kept their many left-handers quiet by bowling into the batsmen from around the wicket. The right-handers were surprised with the ball that swerved.
Bangladesh, who were looking to get off to a cracking start, were brought up short by Sundar’s three wickets in the powerplay overs. They never recovered from that.
It is possible that Sundar, who was primarily a batsman, is able to think like one and bowl in a manner that would pre-empt the opposition batsmen’s gameplan. This has helped him construct every over ball by ball in a cool and calculated manner.
Sundar is just six limited overs matches (one ODI and five T20Is) old. While it may be too soon to assess the impact of the lad, one thing is certain: Anybody who comes to terms with every level of cricket so emphatically is no ordinary talent. India have just got lucky with this rare gem!