Last I heard of Mohit Sharma before IPL 2023, it was at the beginning of 2021 when he was involved in a few practice matches for his domestic side Haryana. The games also featured explosive opening batter Shafali Verma who was preparing for her debut Test match against England at Bristol in June that year.
Verma hit the headlines as she became the youngest woman to hit twin half-centuries on Test debut. Mohit Sharma, on the contrary, was miles away from the limelight.
2015 ODI World Cup Heroics
I can still distinctly remember how Team India turned things around drastically after struggling in the lead-up to the 2015 ODI World Cup Down Under. But, as soon the showpiece event began, they had the house in order.
India's top three in Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli got runs for fun but what helped India stand out in the competition was their bowling attack, as none of their regular bowlers, with the exception of Ravindra Jadeja, conceded runs at an economy rate of over five.
While Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav rose to the occasion, Team India's secret weapon proved to be Mohit Sharma who did not let up as the first-change bowler. He ended up claiming 13 wickets from eight matches in the World Cup at 24.15 and a sensational economy rate of 4.98.
More than being irritated, I was disappointed that despite helping the team to the semi-final, which ended with MS Dhoni's run-out and a billion heartbreaks, Sharma was swiftly sidelined after the South Africa series at home in October 2015 and never represented India post that.
Why, I often wondered, was the metaphorical rope longer for some but not as much for others? To date, Mohit Sharma remains one of the most under-rated pace bowlers to represent India.
Part of the OG Gang
In 2020, ESPN Cricinfo came up with Chennai Super Kings', the most crazily followed franchise in the IPL hands down, all-time XI and Mohit Sharma was part of it, standing shoulder to shoulder with OGs (old people, go Google) like Michael Hussey, Shane Watson and Dwayne Bravo.
The medium pacer who represented the franchise between 2013 and 2015 (he played one match for CSK in 2019, but that doesn't count, right?) picked up 69 wickets from 58 matches at 22.55 and a brilliant economy rate of 7.95 – especially when you consider that he bowled both in the powerplay and at the death.
I clearly remember being in awe of his back-of-the-hand slower delivery when he first burst on to the scene. He certainly had the best back-of-the-hand slower one in the league. Andrew Tye, perhaps, came close. To see a bowler be so precise with such a difficult variation was breathtaking.
Mohit Sharma's back-of-the-hand slower delivery was more like a leg spinner's top spinner. The way the ball dipped on the batter, with the seam bolt upright, the steep drop in pace vis-a-vis his stock delivery, saw batters being flummoxed left, right and centre.
2013 onwards, the bowler had a great run for CSK where he was brilliantly used by MS Dhoni, who was the first IPL captain to realise his potential and backed him.
This is, in fact, an MSD trademark. The number of bowlers he has produced out of nowhere, and continues to do, is staggering. Akash Singh and Tushar Deshpande are the latest inclusions in this long and ever-growing list.
After a couple of productive seasons for Punjab – 13 wickets at 31 each in IPL 2016 and 2017 – Mohit's returns began to decline. He returned to CSK in 2019 but got to play only one match. He played one more game for Delhi in 2020 and vanished from our screens thereafter.
Re-Starting From Scratch
After undergoing a back surgery, Mohit played some domestic cricket ahead of the IPL 2022 auctions, but wasn't picked. He got a call from Gujarat Titans head coach and former CSK teammate Ashish Nehra to join as a net bowler and surmised that it's better to be in the thick of things rather than sit at home.
"Obviously, if you have to upgrade your cricket or better it in any way, you need competitive practice. I felt, what am I going to do sitting at home? I was here and doing competitive practice instead, I kept myself involved in cricket, and I think it was a good time for me. It's not a bad thing to be a net bowler. You get very good exposure, you get to play alongside good players, and if you don't do competitive practice, your cricket won't evolve," Mohit Sharma said after his comeback this year.
When you have represented your country at the World Cup and have been successful in the IPL over the years, it is not easy to come to grips with reality and accept being a net bowler. You have to credit the 34-year-old Haryana-born for not letting his ego come in the way and accepting the GT offer.
The universe responded in kind and he was picked by Gujarat for IPL 2023 albeit for his base price of Rs 50 lakhs. Once Yash Dayal was taken to the cleaners by Rinku Singh, Sharma was picked in the GT XI ahead of Shivam Mavi and R Sai Kishore, and there started his dream comeb
Back With a Bang
Four years after playing his last IPL game, Sharma got his chance on 13 April 2023 against Punjab Kings in Mohali. He gave away only 18 runs, picking up the prized scalps of Jitesh Sharma and Sam Curran. The 34-year-old starred with his into-the-pitch off cutters and back-of-the-hand slower deliveries which have always been a feature of his bowling repertoire.
Against Lucknow Super Giants two matches later, Sharma made the most of his opportunity, winning another Player of the Match award for his sensational figures of 3-0-17-2. Full disclosure, the Lucknow pitch turned out to be the perfect ally for his skillset, but one still has to execute.
With 12 required of the last over and KL Rahul at the crease, Mohit produced a heady mix of yorkers and slower bouncers to leave LSG stunned. He dismissed Rahul and Marcus Stoinis off back-to-back perfectly fashioned slower bumpers and ended his spell by giving away just four runs off the final over, which also included the run-outs of Ayush Badoni and Deepak Hooda, to help Gujarat win out of nowhere.
And what started as a great comeback outing, turned into a season of stellar performances for the 34-year-old as he now stands third in the list of IPL 2023's highest wicket-takers, behind only his team-mates Mohammad Shami and Rashid Khan.
His haul of 24 wickets, going into Sunday's IPL final against Chennai Super Kings, received a huge boost in Qualifier 2 on Friday night in Ahmedabad where he was introduced only in the 15th over but went onto complete a fifer in the 2.3 overs he bowled before Mumbai got all out for 171.
The fifer included the integral wicket of Suryakumar Yadav, the fall of whose wicket started the spiral that led to Mumbai's capitulation in 19 overs.
It was only when Mohit Sharma looked up to the skies with folded hands to celebrate his wickets that one was reminded just how much he had to be grateful for- the opportunity to make a comeback, and a comeback that many can only dream of.
But a comeback that has been hard fought, and hard earned.
From the nets of Gujarat Titans' in 2022 to the highest of accolades among his peers in IPL 2023, the 2014 Purple Cap winner Mohit Sharma is here to remind us, with his assortment of variations, that he too is part of the IPL OG gang.