cricket_finalIn December 2008 the Brisbane-based Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) hosted Atul Sharma, a 22-year-old fast bowler from Mumbai, for a couple of weeks. Apparently Sharma had been sent across by none other than Indian Premier League (IPL) Commissioner Lalit Modi and Rajasthan Royals owner Manoj Badale. They were of the opinion that this kid might just have something in him, but wanted to know what the AIS thought, especially about his bowling action. Here was a pace bowler with a run-up of around 30 metres, who turned sideways about 12 metres before the crease, accelerated, and released the ball without a jump and with a javelin-thrower-esque action.

Nobody knows what transpired at the AIS but soon after his return from Australia, Sharma was in the Rajasthan Royals squad. As remarkable as Sharma’s bowling action is the fact is that his selection had nothing to do with his performance in club or first-class cricket — Sharma hasn’t played a single club match for seven years and has never played first-class cricket. Heck, he couldn’t even always find a place in his school side.

So how has this Mumbaikar got to where he is right now, within sight, assuming he doesn’t fall prey to injuries or is found lacking in big match temperament, of a place in the national side? The answer to that is simple: ever since he first took a cricket ball in his hand, Sharma has wanted to bowl fast, faster than anybody else in the world. And as he grew up, this desire became an all-consuming one, an ambition that disregarded the lack of innate ability (“I’m not a big fan of talent,” said Sharma in an interview to English magazine Spin Cricket earlier this year, “I believe talent is over-rated.”).

By the time he was 17, Sharma, who’d mopped up every book he could find on fast bowling, was wondering whether science and technology might have something more to offer to aspiring fast bowlers, something that disproved the oft-bandied about theory about fast bowlers being born and not made. If he wasn’t born with the ability to bowl fast, Sharma thought, he would acquire it.

TWTWLaunch16In 2006 he read former Natal and Essex cricketer Ian Pont’s book on fast bowling. Pont runs the Mavericks Cricket Institute in Potchefstroom and has worked with quickies such as Darren Gough and Dale Steyn. “I’d been reading a lot of books about fast bowling and the one that made most sense to me was Pont’s Fast Bowler’s Bible…I tried a couple of things from it but I had a hundred questions I wanted to ask him. So I rang Ian from India on a payphone and fixed to go to England and see him for five days. I’m sure Ian was surprised. No one just goes round the world for two hours of coaching a day for a week. Ian didn’t know at that stage whether I was a social cricketer or whether I wanted to bowl 100 mph for India. I didn’t tell him my ambitions at the first meeting because it would have looked kind of insane!” Sharma told Spin Cricket. Over the next three years Sharma would travel often to meet Pont who worked on the former’s bowling in England and South Africa.

When Sharma first met him, says Pont in an e-mail interview with MW, he was a front-on bowler with a massive physique. “It just didn’t look right. Someone with that power and strength needs to be able to access it. So we set about turning him sideways. We worked in India, America, UK and South Africa, working through my Advanced Biomechanics Speed and Accuracy Techniques with drill work and net bowling.”

The reason for the shift in Sharma’s bowling action from front-on to sideways was biomechanics. “Sideways bowlers will always be faster than front-on bowlers due to the ability to access the hip drive correctly. This is why you see javelin throwers coming in to attack their throw sideways. This creates a stretch reflex position, which is desirable for maximising power.” If there was a better way to throw, says Pont, javelin throwers would have found it. But isn’t there a difference? You bowl with a straight arm and deliver the ball downwards while a javelin is sent 80 to 90 metres in the air. “Yes, but the principles are the same… we always knew about hip drive and arm pull as being important, plus keeping the legs driving through to target. Javelin helped cement some things in my mind as a coach,” says Pont.

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After reading Ian Pont’s Fast Bowler’s Bible, Sharma flew down to England to train under him. Pont has worked with quickies such as Darren Gough and Dale Steyn and runs many coaching schools including one at Potchefstroom in South Africa, and Chlemsford in the UK, which focuses on honing Asian talent. Sharma’s action in the initial stages of his training with US javelin coach Jeff Gorski

After a second stint with Pont in 2007 in Chennai, Sharma decided to supplement his preparation with additional guidance. He travelled to North Carolina in America, where he worked under javelin-trainer Jeff Gorski, a US Olympic coach. According to what Sharma told Spin Cricket, he could have chosen to be inspired by either baseball or javelin. He opted for javelin because the throw comes after a run-up and that is closer to cricket. “A javelin weighs 800 gm and the top guys throw it 90m — so I couldn’t believe that if you could do that with a bent elbow, then you couldn’t bowl a cricket ball, which is only 156 gm, at 100 mph.” For the next one year Sharma would stay with Gorski — who didn’t charge him a pie and who eventually became a father figure to him — and expend as much sweat as a javelin thrower. “When Atul first met with me I had him teach me some basics of bowling and he showed me some videos to give me an idea (of what he was looking for). From there we assessed Atul’s goals, strengths and weaknesses and set out on a plan to get more power from Atul’s run-up into his bowling, with a real focus on increased use of his legs and hips to give his shoulder more speed,” says Gorski, whom we contacted via e-mail. “Atul was a very good student, as he came to our first meeting after much study and reading of articles on javelin that made him understand what I was suggesting to him.”

Apart from chopping wood, lifting tyres and drawing water to enhance the development of his ‘throwing’ muscles, Sharma also went through a set of Gorski-designed drills — among them, throwing heavy balls and medicine balls (common to throwers) — and was “introduced to a different way of thinking about his arm delivery and a new way to make that arm strike faster and with less stress while at it.” Atul’s training with him, says Gorski, was geared towards the bowler finding that feeling of ‘a fast ball off his fingers’ that he had with his ‘old’ action. “He knew what really fast balls felt like at release so working his new style under my eyes until the feeling he got on fast balls was matched by my view of what looked good,” says Gorski. The final part of the training revolved around Atul bowling to a ‘batsman’, in this case nothing but a couple of trash barrels in front of a brick wall on an athletics field. During his time with Groski Sharma would achieve rapid progress. Working on brute force, not giving a darn about line and length, he would aim to throw the ball as far as possible, as fast as possible. He would gain arm speed and would bowl further and faster. But he still, and naturally so, didn’t possess control. So, last year Sharma went back to Pont and threw at him the challenge of helping a bowler who had the action and training of a javelin-thrower and who still had to land a ball in the right spot. For the next seven to eight odd months Pont and Sharma would go back once again to the basics. “We simply worked on running up straight, going through the crease straight and following through straight. If you do that, the ball is likely to also go straight,” says Pont. “If you ‘high five’ (that’s releasing the ball as if you are giving a batsman a high five), this pretty much equals a good length for where the ball lands. So we thus have line and length covered by doing those things.” Pont also seems to follow the M S Dhoni mantra of concentrating on the process rather than the outcome. He doesn’t believe in just asking a bowler to bowl at a set of stumps because then the bowler will be fixated on hitting them and might not realise why certain deliveries are successful. “A bowler needs to focus on the process of letting the ball go rather than the final outcome of hitting the stumps,” says Pont. By December 2008, which was when the Royals first saw him, Sharma, who bowled in the 72 to 75 mph range in 2006, was clocking an average of 90 mph with his side-arm action, and more importantly, with added control. “At that point I felt he was ready to be seen by a team and the Rajasthan Royals showed interest. The next step is what will happen to Atul now because he has yet to play for them and he’s now in their charge,” says Pont.

Thanks to a shoulder injury, Sharma didn’t play in the IPL in 2009 and the Rajasthan Royals management clams up every time someone asks them about their mystery bowler. MW spent a whole month trying to elicit information about Sharma and his whereabouts, but even his teammates such as Kamran Khan have no idea about who this man is. The trail runs cold here.

But what do we make of this man who looks more like a contestant in the World’s strongest man competition than a cricketer? Is he just a moneyed youngster with a futile obsession or will he one day hurl thunderbolts at batsmen? Commentator Harsha Bhogle thinks Sharma has a very interesting action (we sent him a video of Sharma bowling at full tilt). “But I would like to see him in actual match up and wait for him to get measured by the speed gun.” The best thing for Sharma, says Bhogle, is to stay below the radar. “The media in India is so over the top and so frivolous that they will make a mockery of things. The shoulder injury is a worry but what I like is that he has huge ambition, is willing to work hard and knows what he is talking about.”

John Gloster, formerly with the Indian team and currently the physio of the Royals, is a lot more circumspect than Bhogle. “He should be given a chance to prove or disprove himself.” But Gloster also adds that the foundations of fast-bowling have to be in place. “You could fine-tune the action and his bowling. But I don’t think a bowler can increase his pace by 20-25mph by doing javelin training.”

Whether or not Atul Sharma hits the big time is something only time will tell. His injury is a major cause for concern. Fitness problems have been the bane of many a promising young speedster and if you watch videos of Sharma’s rigorous training methods it wouldn’t be a huge shock if this injury turns out to be a recurring issue. Then there’s the mystery of the Royals’ silence on the man. Are they hiding a secret weapon? Or has he failed to live up to expectations and therefore, been cast by the wayside? What’s most intriguing about the bowler, though, is that his approach to fast bowling has completely belied a cricket coach’s belief in ‘natural talent’. At a time when biomechanics has become such a major part of sport that someone like Abhinav Bindra could easily become a scientist after he retires, the question begs to be asked: can a cricketer mould himself using science alone? The die-hard cricket fan would still like to believe that Sachin Tendulkar was sent here from heaven to delight us with his batting and that Muttiah Muralitharan’s deformed arm was deliberately given to him by god so that he may perform his magic. But if Sharma is successful it could well pave the way for a whole new breed of cricketers who spend as much time reading in the library as they do playing in the backyard. Which is better? Scientific learning or carefree practice? What is more powerful? Nature or nurture? The debate may soon become immaterial.