Just past midnight at the media conference hall of the MA Chidambaram Stadium, there was a longer than usual wait for the man of the moment to arrive. Once Akash Madhwal entered the room though, nobody was complaining. He had just taken career-best figures of 5/5 in 3.3 overs, won the Player-of-the-Match award and helped Mumbai Indians seal a place in IPL’s Qualifier 2 against defending champions Gujarat Titans.
Wide-eyed and exuding a disarming smile, the sense that this was all very new for Madhwal was apparent.
“First of all, apologies for coming in late,” the Mumbai Indians media manager chimed in. “He (Madhwal) had to do five interviews before he came here.”
Stories like his are essentially what the IPL is all about, catapulting players who are from nondescript towns and little-known to the world into the limelight. Madhwal, a 29-year-old from Roorkee in Uttarakhand, was playing tennis-ball cricket till his mid-20s with no formal training in the game. Having completed his graduation from the College of Engineering in Roorkee, playing with a tennis ball – which he had done since his childhood – was merely a getaway from his run-of-the-mill job.
It was a world far away from the glitz and glamour of the IPL. But seizing the right opportunity at the right moment has enabled Madhwal to make that leap to a world where he’s now rubbing shoulders with Rohit Sharma, Suryakumar Yadav and Cameron Green in the Mumbai dressing room.
The turning point arrived in 2018 when the Cricket Association of Uttarakhand (CAU) was recognised by the Indian cricket board (BCCI). That same year, Madhwal went to coach Avtar Singh, who had also trained Rishabh Pant before the wicketkeeper moved to Delhi, to learn the basics of the game.
“The biggest thing was CAU getting affiliation. Since then, an opportunity has opened up for people here. Akash grabbed that chance,” says elder brother Ashish Madhwal.
Having first bowled with the leather ball only when he was in college, Madhwal’s ability to nail the yorker – a skill that is earning him plaudits – is largely a by-product of tennis-ball cricket.
“Tennis ball se toh sirf yorker seekha hai, wohi implement karta hoon (From tennis ball, I’ve only learned the yorker. I implement just that),” Madhwal told reporters on Wednesday after producing the fifth-best bowling figures in IPL history. “There is actually only this one ball to survive. If you bowl elsewhere (with the tennis ball), you will be hit for a six. Your yorkers need to be perfect in tennis ball cricket. That’s what I do.”
A few individuals, too, have played a part in helping Madhwal reach this juncture. Wasim Jaffer was the Uttarakhand coach, for instance, when Madhwal turned up for state trials for the first time in 2019. The former India opener spotted a spark and gave him his debut for Uttarakhand in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament against Karnataka.
While Jaffer left the post soon after the tournament, former Services fast bowler Manish Jha took over as coach and noticed the same X-factor.
“When I joined as head coach, I first saw him at the nets. Since he didn’t have a proper cricketing background, he was not sure of his execution and place in the team. I told him I am going to play him in all the matches. I had that intuition that I should back a talent like him. I felt he had something,” recalled Jha.
What was that standout feature? “If you see even now, his ball skids on. The batter is invariably late on the ball,” said Jha. “Uska run-up aur approach dekh ke, aise lagta nahi ki ball itna tez aata hoga (Seeing his run-up and approach, it doesn’t seem like the ball will be that fast). But a lot of players are late in reacting to his ball. That’s his special skill.”
But at the same time, there were also some rough edges to be knocked off. “He used to experiment a lot due to his tennis-ball background. We had to get him to work on his stock ball. That’s something we have done over the past two years in the nets,” said Jha.
Jha also made Madhwal the captain of Uttarakhand’s white-ball set-up ahead of the 2022-23 season. “During conversations, I realised that he is very calm. He reacts easily to pressure situations,” Jha added.
At Mumbai Indians, where he was a net bowler before being drafted into the squad last year as an injury replacement for Suryakumar, Sharma also seems to have recognised Madhwal’s potential. Though Madhwal’s strength is landing those yorkers with the older ball, Sharma is now also using him up front with the new ball. Since his debut against Punjab Kings on May 3, Mumbai incidentally have won five out of seven matches.
“Actually my strength is my yorker. Rohit bhai knew what my strength is,” said Madhwal. “As a captain, he used me exactly where the team needed me. Later on, I bowled at the nets with the new ball too. In the practice matches, I had done well to take wickets with the new ball. He then thought I can bowl with the new ball too. And I have proved myself.”
That he certainly has.