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Harshal Patel improves T20 skills with bowling with new balls, length variations and some batting too

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Training without fear of competition has been liberating for Harshal Patel.

After recovering from a rib injury that knocked him out of the Asian Cup, which has just finished in the UAE, Harshal is looking forward to life on the road, which will soon include a first World Cup appearance. But first he has to deal with the T20Is against Australia that start in Mohali on Tuesday.

Harshal has spent the past four weeks in rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. He worked on his physical condition for the first two weeks before returning to bowling. One of his main areas of focus has been to lead the way to continue to be the X-factor bowler teams they long for.

“I want to be stricter with my execution,” Harshal told ESPNcricinfo last month while he was under rehab in Bengaluru. “And that’s what I more or less achieved last IPL. I will continue to strive for that. If I bowl one or two bad balls out of 24, [want to see] if I can eliminate that altogether.

“You’re not going to be able to do that whole game, but if I can do that in two out of five or three out of five, that’s a goal worth aiming for.”

Harshal was known for his amazing slower ball, cutters and a powerful yorker that propelled him to the top of the wicket-taker charts at IPL 2021.

Nearly a year later, he has emerged as a key member of the Indian T20I arsenal. The time off due to injury, he believes, has helped him explore different facets of his craft, apart from working on its execution, which is the “heavier part.” Two of those areas are his new ball bowling and variations in lengths.

“I did a little research on how long I can bowl with the slower ball,” he explained. “Usually it’s when I’m bowling the slower balls, especially fuller or of good length. But now I’ve started bowling more shorter slower balls, which work really well for me. That’s one thing, of course.

“I also worked on my new ball skills for a while. I started doing that halfway through the IPL. Just because in the IPL, what I had to do [mainly middle-overs and death bowling]all my skills were top notch so i didn’t have to work on it.

“So every time I went to practice I would take a new ball and start bowling with it because it’s good to have a skill and not need it then vice versa. It’s just something I’ve been working on on and if I get the chance, for India or for RCB [Royal Challengers Bangalore]I’d love to do that.”

Harshal is deeply analytical about his skills and challenges himself to get better. It also helped that the team management has been clear about what they expect from him.

Harshal’s usefulness was mainly in the mid and death overs. In the 30 T20s this year, he has bowled 54 overs in the mid-stage for 19 wickets at 6.61 economy and 41.1 overs at death for 18 wickets at 10.17. By comparison, in the 11 innings in which he came in the top six, he averaged just one left per game.

“She [Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma] have been nothing but supportive,” Harshal said. “Whatever the team ethos, they’ve been prioritized over individuals, which is great.

“They told me exactly what my role was. They said, ‘We want you to be able to bowl in all three phases, not just middle and dead’. They bowled once every game at the end of the power play to get used to that. “

It’s not just his bowling that has been under works. There is an improved power in hitting the ball, something he is very proud of. He admits that due to the regular flow of matches he had little time to work on that area, but that is no longer the case.

“My ability to hit number 8 is something they… [team management] really worth,” he said. “I haven’t worked much on my batting due to time constraints, because you’re constantly in competition. But during rehab, I’ve had a chance to hit 500-700 balls in two to three weeks. It’s something I’ve been wanting to work on for a while, because I really want to contribute to that.”

What has helped is clarity about the roles and the support of the team management. Harshal believes this is critical for individuals from a mental standpoint as it helps them make better decisions, especially when players are returning from injuries.

“It does take some pressure off you,” he says of the captain and coach’s support. “Because sometimes people make stupid decisions when they go back to play. They either try to do too much or try to push a little faster because they feel their place is in jeopardy or for whatever reason.

“But if you’re sure that the team management will remember what you did before you got injured, and that performance and contribution won’t be forgotten, it gives you a sense of calm or comfort that once you get back to the team – of course you will have to perform over and over again and that goes for any cricketer – you know you will keep that place in the team.”

As Harshal looks ahead, the mention of ‘World Cup’ brings a smile to his face. He grew up like any other kid who dreamed of playing in one, and that dream is now closer to realization and there’s plenty of “excitement and nervous energy” bursting at the seams.

“Of course I’m super excited,” he said. “I’m going to get nervous at some point, but right now I’m just excited. The two World Cups India won in 2007 and 2011 I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing.

“After we won the World Cup, like any kid, we took our scooters and went out into the street dancing, jumping and screaming. It would be great if I could play and if we finally win the World Cup, to to have completed circle would be a great feeling [right now] it will be a lot of excitement and nervous energy.”

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo