One must be careful in assessing how good a player is based on performances in the IPL. We have had the examples of Manpreet Gony and Ashok Dinda to name but two who were hurriedly given India caps following their showing in the competition. Obviously they were not ready for the big stage yet and under the circumstances it is good to note that while picking the Indian team to play in limited overs games in the West Indies the selectors went largely by performances around the domestic circuit.
At the risk of being proved wrong I am however willing to stick my neck out and predict that Rahul Sharma will not only don Indian colours sooner rather than later but will also make a success of it. No young bowler in the IPL has been more impressive than the 24-year-old Jalandhar born leg spinner. He has suddenly become the next best thing to happen to Indian cricket as far as spin bowling is concerned and a much talked about cricketer.
It is not just the bagful of wickets he has taken while turning out for Pune Warriors. Rahul has created an indelible impression by his subtle bowling skills and in fact was regarded as having an outside chance of making the squad for the Caribbean. He has just missed out but his time will undoubtedly come for he is an exciting prospect who needs to be nurtured. He is able to extract both turn and bounce and what's more is remarkably accurate. His IPL figures are truly amazing. He is the fourth highest wicket taker. His 16 wickets have been obtained at an average of 17 apiece but much more remarkably his economy rate of 5.46 is the best for any bowler. His best match figures of three for 13 indicate that he has been among the wickets in virtually every one of his 14 matches. He has outshone the likes of Shane Warne, Muthiah Muralitharan, Harbhajan Singh, Piyush Chawla, Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha and that underlines the significance of his achievement. And this for a struggling side that has finished one place from the bottom.
Rahul first caught the eye during Pune Warriors' first match against Mumbai. He went for just 14 runs in his three overs and took one wicket. But that one wicket was that of Sachin Tendulkar who was suitably impressed. Rahul says the great man congratulated him after the match. "He told me that I am bowling at my best. It is the best compliment that one can receive."
The improvement in Rahul's bowling over the past year is best reflected by figures. Last season, he took just five wickets and went at over eight runs an over in the six matches he played for Deccan Chargers. He attributes some of his success to the advice he has received from Harbhajan Singh. "I had a chat with Bhajji when he came to Jalandhar and he told me that my strong point is the bounce I can extract," said Rahul in a recent interview. He has also received similar advice from his Punjab coach Bhupinder Singh who says he has told him to hit the pitch so that he gets bounce. According to Bhupinder he is very similar to Anil Kumble and can be groomed to be a good limited overs bowler.
Given his height (he is over six feet tall) the bounce comes naturally to Rahul. But he is also working on bowling a wicket-to-wicket line and using as many variations as possible. "You can't be predictable in Twenty20" he says. Obviously he is a thinking man's bowler.
Rahul has certainly made those who matter in Indian cricket sit up and take notice and has emerged as a serious contender for an India cap. Young, talented and ambitious Rahul made clear his disappointment at not being selected for the team to tour the Caribbean. But that will not affect his motivation. He is a mature lad who knows his time will come. "I will try and work harder and give my hundred percent whenever I play" he said in a recent interview.
Bowlers have things going against them in Twenty20. They are allowed only four overs, are restricted to one bouncer an over, the umpires are very strict on no balls and wides and the boundaries seem to be getting shorter and shorter. And yet if there is one bowler in the IPL who has risen magnificently to these challenges it is Rahul. He certainly has been the find of the season.
Rahul had it tough in the early days as there was no coach to tell him what to bowl and how to bowl. He is largely a self made man for he picked up the finer points of the game just by seeing senior players on television as well as on the field. Gradual improvement saw him being selected for the Indian Under-19 team for the Asia Cup in 2006. He did well enough to convince his father who was not keen on his son playing cricket to let him pursue the game seriously.
Rahul has also had to contend with off field issues that almost threatened to cut short his career. A sudden bout of Bell's Palsy meant that his future was suddenly in danger. This was the time when he was with the Deccan Chargers. He was going out for a practice session and felt numb on the right side. He was unable to sight the ball properly and everything was a blur. The doctor advised him complete rest and he is grateful to the Deccan Chargers management who took care of everything.
All that is past now and Rahul these days is a picture of confidence. He attacks the batsman by making him play thanks mainly to his accuracy which is his forte. During the match against Rajasthan Royals he met up with Shane Warne who gave him tips to bowl to different batsmen. He is eager to learn and clearly a lot more is going to be heard of him in the near future.