Washington Sundar had disappeared from India's limited-overs radar after making a splash in the Nidahas Trophy in Sri Lanka last year. A freak football injury, sustained during training, sidelined him from the limited-over matches in England last year. The pain came back during his stint with India A in New Zealand, and although Washington returned to top-flight cricket in the 2019 IPL, he barely bowled in the Powerplay for Royal Challengers Bangalore. Now, with the T20 World Cup a little over a year away, he has re-emerged to take the new ball for India.
India have already torn up their old T20I template and are searching for specialists. Deepak Chahar made an early case with his swing and variations in the Mohali T20I and his experience of bowling in the Powerplay for Chennai Super Kings even prompted Virat Kohli to liken him to Bhuvneshwar Kumar. India's other Powerplay option in recent times has been Washington. The 19-year-old is also a competent batsman - he has opened for Tamil Nadu in first-class cricket - which is partly why India have recalled him, swapping out their premier wristspinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
India currently have three other spinners - Krunal Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja and Rahul Chahar - in the mix but none of them has been as effective with the new ball as Washington in T20s. Since his T20 debut in April 2017 in the IPL, Washington has been among the best fingerspinners in the Powerplay, taking 13 wickets in 24 innings in that phase while conceding only 7.02 runs an over. Among spinners, he is head-to-head with the likes of Rashid Khan, Sunil Narine, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mitchell Santner in terms of economy rate in the first six overs of an innings.
Interestingly, while Narine and Mujeeb have some mystery balls in their repertoire, Washington, like Santner, simply relies on turn - or the lack of it - and has excellent control over his lines and lengths. Washington can also generate some extra bounce from a high-arm action apart from getting the ball to skid off the pitch. When at his best, he denies the batsmen the swinging room and length they crave for and aims to outsmart them - all of this while having the tiny cushion of just two men outside the circle.
Washington hadn't played a single T20 before making his foray into the IPL in 2017, but he soon established himself as the go-to Powerplay bowler for Steven Smith and MS Dhoni at Rising Pune Supergiant. All told, he bowled 108 balls in the Powerplay in IPL 2017, giving away 118 runs at an economy rate of 6.55 while claiming four wickets.
Washington then excelled in a similar role with the new ball in the Nidahas Trophy but hasn't been used regularly in the Powerplay in the IPL since moving to Royal Challengers. He has bowled only seven overs in the Powerplay in the ten games he played for them in the last two seasons.
Chahal was Royal Challengers' first-choice spinner and Washington slipped down the pecking order. But now, at India, the teenager has a chance to move up with his all-round skills and fit into India's T20 World Cup plans.
Washington gave a good account of himself on his return to international cricket in the Caribbean, posing a big threat to the left-hand batsmen with his offbreaks as well as non-turners. He took only two wickets in three matches, but his economy rate of 6.62 stood out. In the Powerplay, his economy rate was even more impressive: 4.75.
During his rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru and later in Chennai last year, Washington wondered if he could replicate his success with the new ball on return. But he managed to overcome those doubts and even got Kohli's vote of confidence. From not giving Washington enough overs in the Powerplay at Royal Challengers, Kohli banked on him to smother the batsmen with the new ball.
"Washington has been really good, especially starting with the new ball against guys who come hard at the ball," Kohli told the host broadcaster after the spinner collected figures of 3-1-12-1 in the second T20I against West Indies in Lauderhill. "[He's] very aggressive upfront, especially in the first six overs. He has done a tremendous job, picking up wickets and controlling the runs as well.
"The composure he has shown after being away for so long, he has been outstanding to come back and do the job he used to do. He's definitely going to be a big factor for us and is handy with the bat. He has become fitter, leaner and sharper in the field also. All in all, I think he's in a good space and is executing what he wants to at the moment."
Washington also bowled a thrifty spell against South Africa in Mohali, returning none for 19 in three overs. He had a left-hander in Quinton de Kock to work with upfront and although he couldn't dismiss the opposition captain, he restricted de Kock to six off eight balls, including five dots. After de Kock cracked Navdeep Saini for three successive boundaries, Washington returned to the attack in the Powerplay and tied him down with his usual disciplined lines and lengths.
It is hard to see Washington getting game-time with the bat - he is listed at No. 8 or below in this line-up - and with legspinner Rahul Chahar yet to get a proper trial, opportunities may be limited in the coming months. They will shrink further when Chahal and Kuldeep slot back into the side. India have around 25 T20Is to play before the T20 World Cup in Australia next year, and Washington is racing against time to break away from the pack.
With inputs from Gaurav Sundararaman