By Jamie Alter
Eric Simons, India’s bowling coach, termed him the unsung hero of India’s victorious World Cup campaign. It was an awareness of his skills and his ability to adapt, according to Simons, which allowed Munaf Patel to give the Indian bowling attack reassurance. A month into the fourth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), and the folks in the Mumbai Indians (MI) camp could probably not put it any better.
After team-mate Lasith Malinga, Munaf has been the most reliable and consistent bowler in the IPL. Since moving from Rajasthan Royals to MI, Munaf has clearly thrived in his new environment.
He has been economic and penetrative, as 17 wickets – the second best after Malinga - at an economy rate of 6.20 and strike-rate of 13.80 (the second best for the team) indicate, and even more surprising has been his fielding efforts. Thrice he has taken smart boundary catches, and the lethargy with which Munaf once lumbered in the outfield has diminished. A successful World Cup has aided the spring in a rejuvenated Munaf’s steps in the ongoing IPL. It bodes well for India keeping in mind the forthcoming away series against the West Indies and England.
Against Royal Challengers Bangalore, he bowled three overs for ten runs when every other MI bowler conceded over 6.25. Against Kochi Tuskers Kerala, his analysis read 3-0-15-0 when the next best economy rate was 8.25. Against Pune Warriors at the Wankhede Stadium, Munaf grabbed three for eight in 14 deliveries and got the Man-of-the-Match award. With MI unsuccessfully defending a total of 94 against Rajasthan Royals, Munaf returned figures of 4-1-18-2. In the first match against Kings XI Punjab (KXIP), he took 2 for 18 in his quota. When Delhi Daredevils dropped in, he took 2 for 29 off four overs.
In Mohali on Tuesday night, Munaf snared five for 21 – only the eighth time in the IPL that a bowler took five in an innings – but ended up on the losing side. Personally, it was a milestone in what has been an excellent IPL campaign for Munaf. MI will not care much about the loss, seeing as they are still on top of the league table and a certainty for the knock-outs, and Munaf will take back happy memories from his trip up north.
His Twenty20 experience – this was his 43rd match – was evident. His first four deliveries were short of a length and intentionally dug into Paul Valtathy, whose unease against the awkward length and deceptive pace resulted in a miscue to long-on. Shaun Marsh was welcomed with another jagging delivery and let it sail over the top of middle stump.
Munaf was held back specifically for the late overs – much like MI’s spearhead Malinga – and his two wickets in the 16th over swung the match. The second delivery produced the big wicket of Marsh, but in truth the credit went to an outstanding catch in the deep by Kieron Pollard. Four balls later there was another wicket but it was the preceding two balls that played a part. David Hussey was greeted with two slow bouncers, and then came the sucker ball: a slight change in pace, a bit fuller in length, and Hussey swatted the ball to mid-off. Six balls, five runs, two wickets. The thrust had been snatched back from KXIP.
The landmark moment came in his final over, the 19th of the innings. Dinesh Karthik’s attempt to do a Viv Richards, nestled in the fielder’s hands at deep backward square leg first ball. Aand off his final ball of the evening, Munaf sent down a slower length delivery which Ryan Harris heaved over the onside. Out in the deep, Pollard tumbled forward to hold another ripper. Munaf went delirious, a rare moment of raw emotion from a man once derided for being too lackadaisical.
The unreliable tag has been binned. The ability to change both length and pace come in handy regularly now. The pace has dipped, but the accuracy is unnerving and the bounce often disconcerting. His wicket-to-wicket line makes him hard to get away. Munaf appears aware of his strengths, and sticks to them. He doesn’t bowl as many full deliveries; he prefers to dig it in just outside off stump. The comparisons to Glenn McGrath aren’t entirely misplaced. The Australian legend, Munaf’s inspiration, would be proud of a tournament economy rate of 6.20.
(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. He is the author of two books, The History of World Cup Cricket and Field of Dreams: The Story of the Dr. DY Patil Sports Stadium. His twitter feed is @jamie_alter)