It's the third ball of the sixth over, Kolkata Knight Riders' (KKR) captain Gautam Gambhir has just started to break free. He lofts one over extra cover for four off Washington Sundar. And then goes one step ahead and lofts him for six over long on by charging down the track. For an 17-year-old off-spinner bowling in the powerplay, there might be a thousand things fluttering inside the mind. What now? What should be my next step? How do I stop him? However, it’s not the case with Washington. He trundles in the next ball, gives it extra flight and pitches it full outside off; Gambhir goes for a swipe across the line, doesn’t get the desired connection and holes out to deep mid-wicket. The battle is won, in the simplest of ways.
M Sundar, Washington's father, fondly recalls that short battle at the Eden Gardens in the 2017 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) as our chat veers from his son's early days towards his biggest strength.
"His mind (is his biggest strength). He is fearless," Sundar senior tells Firstpost. “If somebody is bowling at him at 148 Kmph or 150 on a wicket like Perth or in South Africa, he won't show any fear. He is a fearless boy with intelligence."
Washington ended as the second-most economical bowler, behind Pawan Negi (for bowlers who have bowled 30 overs or more) in his debut season in the IPL with an economy rate of 6.16. However, the one thing that stood out was his fearless bowling in the Powerplay.
"I do a lot of homework for sure looking at different batsmen. I plan different things for different batsmen," Washington told Firstpost before getting the national call-up. "For me to execute them in the match is very important and I should be really prepared to execute them under pressure, playing in front of big crowds against the likes of Pollard, Warner, Buttler or McCullum. Just by looking at the guy who is 17 they would want to put the pressure on you straightaway. Bowling against these guys was a big challenge and I was able to hold my nerve. People like Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni) and (Steven) Smith helped me a lot to stay in the present and made sure I know what to do."
It was Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS) coach Stephen Fleming's idea of unleashing Washington in the first six overs since they were up against Sunrisers Hyderabad which comprised of three left-handers — David Warner, Shikhar Dhawan and Yuvraj Singh — in their top order. It would prove to be a masterstroke.
"During the IPL he was asked whether he would be comfortable bowling in first six overs, and there was no hesitation on his part," recalls Hrishikesh Kanitkar, assistant coach of Rising Pune Supergiants. "He just said, yes for sure, and the way he said it was as if he had been bowling in the first six overs throughout his life and was like his fifth or sixth year of the IPL. It was very normal like 'okay, fine.' So he was up to it."
While there was a steady progression in his junior career, it was since the IPL that the 17-year-old started taking giant strides. In the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) post IPL, he ended up as the highest run-getter (459 runs at 76.50 and SR of 154.54) and second-highest wicket-taker (15 wickets at 12.73 and an ER of 6.16). Success followed him in the Duleep Trophy where he scalped 11 wickets and scored 130 runs on debut. A month later, he conjured figures of 8-1-23-2 when almost every other bowler was hammered around the MA Chidambaram stadium in the tour match against Australia. A maiden first-class hundred followed, in the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy.
Washington was hitting all the right notes which the selectors couldn't ignore. In January this year, he was dropped from the Tamil Nadu T20 side for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, but eleven months later he got a maiden national call-up for One-Day Internationals (ODI) and Twenty20 (T20)side.
As a six-year-old, Washington would accompany his father — a Tamil Nadu Ranji probable from 1993 to 1996 and a first division cricketer — during matches to watch him play. Sundar Senior would utilise the little time in between sessions to feed tennis balls to Washington, who loved hitting them around. Slowly, Washington’s interest in the game increased and soon he fell deeply in love with the game. Sundar spotted the spark very early and his son soon started juggling between school and practice sessions. However, with Sundar, Washington's top priority was never in doubt.
"I saw this boy having special talent at the age of six, so I decided to keep studies as the second option," says Sundar.
“He started hitting the ball with a beautiful swing and hand-eye co-ordination. He had the ability to play straight naturally. Normally when you bowl underarm to kids, they play towards mid-wicket or square leg. But Washi used to play very straight. That impressed me. Sometimes when I bowled underarm with padding and all (for him), he wouldn't accept it. He would say 'father bowl at whatever speed you can.' Then I used to bowl medium pace."
Soon, Sundar — who was inspired by former colleague and teammate WV Raman — modelled Washington's stance on the former India batsman. A home-run academy meant that Washington was never short of training space. Not just the batting, work on all-round development had started by the age of 10.
"One thing my dad made sure was that he didn't want me to stand still after I finished my batting," Washington recalls. "He wanted me to try things, bowl off-spin, leg-spin, medium-pace, and keep wickets. By the time I was in sixth standard, I was able to do everything, so I had options of doing different things for different teams that I played."
After impressive performances playing for the U-16s, Washington was selected for the National Cricket Academy (NCA) camp the same year, where, under the tutelage of bowling coach D Vasu, his bowling took wing. It was Vasu, Sundar and former Tamil Nadu cricketer M Venkataramana's combined efforts that shaped Washington, the bowler. The 17-year-old's gallant display in powerplays during the IPL was a result of Sundar's vision and systematic training at a very young age. As the coach of his academy, Sundar had started moulding Washington for the toughest of scenarios.
"He had natural loop and off-spinner's arc, at that time he was very short. In 30-over academy matches in Chennai, I used to make him bowl the last three overs, 26, 28 and 30, always," Sundar says. He used to give less than 10 runs in last three overs in U-14 tournaments and bowled without any fear as a 10-year-old. From 12 onwards, he started bowling with the new ball, first, third and fifth overs. 99 percent of the time, his first over would be a maiden or just one or two runs would be scored. Sometimes he used to get 2-3 wickets in the first over itself. He used to bowl with two slips and all."
Nerves of steel were forged at a very young age which started paying dividends on the bigger stage.
"He (my father) always wants me to play with guts and insists on this day in and day out," Washington said. "He wants me to be someone who is cool and calm under difficult situations. He's moulded me this way. It helped me a lot especially in the IPL. When I was given the ball in my debut game against the Sunrisers, I was up against David Warner and there was definitely a lot of pressure especially for someone who is 17. But I did manage to hold my nerve because of the learning imparted by my father."
At the age of 12, Washington amassed 596 runs and taken 33 wickets from 11 games in a local division league, playing with players twice or thrice his age, that was the time he realised he could make a career out of cricket.
The hard work had doubled by now which resulted in Washington's steady rise through the junior ranks. By 16, he had made it to the India U-19 squad. A glimpse of his talent was on display in the 2016 U-19 World Cup where he consistently bowled frugal spells which included valiant figures of 9-1-18-0 in the final against West Indies. This was the first step towards entering the limelight. A maiden first-class call-up was not far away.
Every journey at some point gets punctuated by a bumpy ride. At the start of 2017, Washington was left with a lot of soul searching to do. The 17-year-old was dropped from the Tamil Nadu T20 side for the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament on the back of a difficult maiden Ranji season. It did hurt, but in turn instilled extra motivation which translated into success in the Vijay Hazare and Deodhar Trophies where he played a crucial role in helping his side clinch both the trophies.
"In the one-and-a-half months before Vijay Hazare Trophy, I worked really hard on all aspects. I used to come to the ground for both the sessions," Washington said. "I never used to take a day off and made sure I batted, bowled and trained well. I wasn't expecting too many things, just wanted to get better and fitter as a player and those things paid off."
This is where it all started to turn around for the youngster. Having followed Washington's development closely at Tamil Nadu, Hrishikesh Kanitkar suggested Washington's name to RPS management when Ravichandran Ashwin pulled out of the 2017 IPL due to injury.
"I had no doubt in suggesting Washi's name because one thing I knew for sure is that he doesn't get fazed by situations or opponents," Kanitkar explains. "I knew that even if he was up against experienced and very good batsmen in the IPL, he would bowl the way he bowls. With Washi, what you see is what you get."
Heading into the league, Washington had just one aim — learn as much as possible. The IPL invariably proved to be the turning point.
"When I went to the IPL, I was in a very good frame of mind and rhythm. All I had to do was to hold my nerve and be very, very focused because I was aware that those 45 days can change my life. But I didn't put too much pressure (on myself). I was just 17 and wanted to enjoy the game," he says. "I gained a lot of experience as well. Bowling against some of the stars did give me massive confidence and made me believe in what I am able to do and what I am capable of doing."
With consistent performances, the path seemed clear for a national call-up, but there had to be another twist in the tale. Washington flunked the Yo-Yo Test and missed out on the bus for the Australia T20 series in October.
"We were a little bit surprised because we all thought that a score of 16.1 was not that difficult for someone who was playing regularly," says Kanitkar. "But what we realised was that he had just played a Duleep Trophy game in which he had bowled a lot of overs, was on the field all the time and batted for long periods as well. And to immediately travel after that for a fitness test was a little unfair. Also he had some hamstring tightness at that time. Apart from that there was no reason why he won't be able to pull through."
With Washington, there was the inevitable strong response. He stepped up the hard work. Determination coupled with a fresh mind and constant motivation from Kanitkar and Sundar helped him clear the test which paved the way for Sri Lanka T20 series selection.
Talk to Washington and the first thing that strikes the mind is his simplicity. The word 'bhaiya' (brother) is often repeated while he talks in a soft and apologetic tone. It is this simplicity that rubs off on his game as well. He doesn't like to complicate things and more importantly he is very clear in his mind.
The Tamil Nadu all-rounder’s secret of success against Australia, where he got Steven Smith and Glenn Maxwell in the tour game, was pretty simple, "I was just trying to hit the right areas. Because there was something in the wicket, I knew I would be able to get some purchase and bowl a good spell at the end of the day. I just tried concentrating doing the right things," he recalls.
I try to quiz him further. And what happens when his plans go wrong?
"Definitely I will have to go back to my run-up and again try to do the same thing. Or again try to not bowl in the area where he is expecting me to bowl. Everyone gets hit but it’s how you come back that makes a huge difference. Even if you have been hit for a six and have given 10 runs in four-five balls, it matters how you manage to give just a single and finish the over with 11 runs instead of giving another six or four and making it 16-18 runs which will make a lot of difference," Sundar explains.
The clarity in thought is palpable. Apart from his hard work and fearlessness it's his uncluttered mind that stands out.
"He (Washington) is someone who is very keen to learn, a very simple person. He likes to keep everything simple. He works on his game and wants to get better," Kanitkar says.
"If you see all the IPL games and even the Deodhar and Vijay Hazare trophies, when a batsman has got the better of him, Washington has been unfazed. What usually happens is that when a batsman steps out and hits you for a boundary or a six, the bowler invariably tends to drop it short (next ball) because he expects the batsman to step up and hit again, but with Washington, he knows what he wants to bowl and he will trust his ability, that's something that's he's got which is special."
According to Sundar, this quality is innate and he draws a really interesting parallel.
"My mentor and godfather PD Washington used to be like that. Most of his habits, mental aspects are available in my son Washington. PD Washington was very simple, natural, helpful, and very honest, Washi is having all these qualities, by God's grace."
A national call-up at such a young age doesn't surprise Sundar. In fact he feels it’s a bit late as it should have come at 16 which in itself speaks volumes of how highly he rates his son.
At 18, Washington will soon enter the most crucial phase of his life. How will he respond to this challenge? Well, with Washington it has to be very simple.
"Whatever comes I should be ready. Whatever it may be. I don't really want to expect too much. I just want to wake up every day, practice, work hard, and get better so whenever my turn comes, wherever it might be, I should be ready," Washington signs off in a typical Washington way.
Note: Washington spoke to Firstpost before he got selected for India ODI and T20Is