"Kya yaar, kaunsa specialist bowler ho jab tum chaar over bhi nahi daal paate?" (What specialist bowler are you if you can't even bowl four overs?)
Avesh Khan remembers being knocked by this one question from within every time he didn't complete his quota of four overs at IPL 2023.
We're in Alur, at the Duleep Trophy where Avesh is playing for Central Zone, far away from the cameras that try to dissect every minute aspect of play. And because the environment is "free", it feels as if the curtains of diplomacy that force players to often fall back on the cliched "process" and "basics" is lifted.
It certainly feels that way with Avesh as he reflects on a tough IPL. He hadn't yet been picked in India's T20I squad to play West Indies. His inclusion for the Asian Games cricket competition wasn't announced at the time either. Perhaps that made it easier for Avesh to be more reflective of his shortcomings.
So why was it a tough IPL 2023 for him? For starters, Lucknow Super Giants played their home games on slow and low turners. As an out-and-out fast bowler, Avesh found himself taken out of the game fast. In five of the nine games he played in, Avesh didn't compete his full quota. In all, he managed eight wickets at an economy rate of 9.75.
Avesh got to a point of self-blame, until he realised he had to learn and let go. High expectations and the pressure had got to him. Two seasons back, in 2021, he was the IPL's second-highest wicket-taker with 24 strikes for Delhi Capitals. In 2022, he was Super Giants' highest wicket-taker in their inaugural season where they made the playoffs.
It was that performance that fuelled his India call-up. He was in the running for a T20 World Cup berth last year, until the Asia Cup that preceded it, before it all came crashing down. The most recent of his 15 T20Is came in that tournament, against Hong Kong in Dubai where Avesh's four overs cost 53. He was, in his words, "all over the place". He knew then that he had to reboot.
"If a captain has so much confidence in you that he asks you to set your own fields, and then you mess up, it adds to the disappointment. My field placements should've been better. I didn't bowl as per the surfaces"
Avesh Khan isn't happy with his past performances
As the domestic season began, Avesh immediately got steady game-time, trying to iron out flaws and make adjustments on the fly. Also, performances along the way in red-ball cricket gave him the lift-off. His 38 wickets in eight matches were the second highest among fast bowlers in the Ranji Trophy season in 2022-23, when Madhya Pradesh made the quarter-final. Yet, Avesh insists he wasn't in a great space going into this year's IPL.
"Partly it was the keenness to exceed my own expectations that led to me putting undue pressure on myself," he said while chatting during the Duleep Trophy, and before India's squad for the West Indies T20Is was announced. "I felt I had to make things happen all the time; and when you do that, you sometimes tend to deviate from your own set plans and your natural ability. That was the biggest learning from the past year.
"My thinking itself was wrong. If a captain has so much confidence in you that he asks you to set your own fields, and then you mess up, it adds to the disappointment. My field placements should've been better. I didn't bowl as per the surfaces. In T20 cricket, every ball can make a difference. At the IPL, with the Impact Player rule, teams can replace you anytime. And early in the season, it hurt [after being substituted in the second game]. But all these things have taught me some important lessons, and I've started the season well now."
Avesh certainly did start the new season well. At India's 2023-24 domestic-season opening Duleep Trophy last month, his team Central Zone didn't make the final. But Avesh appeared sharp, troubling batters with movement both ways. There was rhythm about his bowling that told you he had put in enough preparation in the lead-up.
"I am the kind of guy who wants to bowl tough overs," Avesh says. "There is no fear. I ask the captain for the ball. I feel I have to win two-three games for the team every season. I felt angry that I couldn't do it earlier. If that hurt, then you feel satisfied as a bowler. I didn't want to sit back and go through the motions. So the moment the domestic calendar was announced, I had begun my preparation a good three weeks before the Duleep Trophy.
"MPCA had begun a camp for the Under-19s overseen by [head coach] Chandrakant Pandit. So I joined the camp and got good match preparation because we underwent different kinds of match simulation. It has helped a lot because match rhythm is way different to what you do at the nets. It was an intense two-week long preparation that kept me match ready."
Avesh's natural style is to hit the deck and extract movement off the pitch. That he can do this at high pace makes him a valuable proposition. Among the things he worked on during his break with his close confidant and friend Anand Rajan, the former Madhya Pradesh allrounder, was to correct the use of his non-bowling arm which was falling away a tad quicker because of which he wasn't able to put more body into his action. Prior to that, Avesh benefited from working with Morne Morkel, Super Giants' bowling coach.
"I've been fortunate to have the help of so many people along the way," Avesh said. "[Mohammed] Shami bhai, Umesh [Yadav], and [Mohammed] Siraj - they've all been very helpful in terms of trying to help me with minor adjustments. Morne had his way of boosting your confidence; however your performances were, he'd try and always look for the positive first. But he'll also quickly tell you the mistakes you made without sugar coating.
"That honesty helps, but in the IPL you're also challenged by time and travel, and external factors. So as and when I got time off, I ensured I made some changes to my bowling - slightly change the angle of my run-up to use the crease better, [change] the release, etc. Morne also taught me the knuckleball, which we worked on quite a bit. The one advice he had for me was to be mindful of deviating from plans when under pressure."
The one other difference in Avesh's bowling stems from a series of warm-ups prior to his first over. There's a whole lot of upper body movements and drills he was regularly seen working on before bowling his first over of the day, right through the two first-class games at the Duleep Trophy.
"It's a simple thing - my first ball can't be a warm up," Avesh said. "As a bowler if you can cause uncertainty in the batter in your very first over, that's half the battle won; they are also tentative. If I'm warmed up, I am better placed to challenge them by not giving them a chance to get their eye in. You see, the ball I bowled to dismiss Abhimanyu Easwaran first ball [against East Zone in the Duleep Trophy] was one such example. I enjoyed it so much that I think I must have watched that replay some 10-12 times. I had fun."
Avesh will hope the fun extends to the T20Is against West Indies. In the absence of the ODI regulars, all of whom will be in preparation for the Asia Cup and the World Cup, he could have a series of opportunities to impress the selectors. With a T20 World Cup lined up next year - also in the West Indies, along with the USA - this series could lend some weightage to his performances.
"If you think too far, you become desperate and make mistakes," Avesh had said on the prospect of a comeback, which wasn't yet set in stone at the time of the chat. "I just think of what's in front of me now. If I think ahead, I'll get hurt. You won't enjoy the game, you start let pressure dictating you.
"As a player, it's tough breaking out of a cycle you want to get out of. So for now, I just want to keep it simple: enjoy my game, and win matches for the team. Nothing more."