Ish Sodhi Talks T20: Conversations with a World #1

It’s been a big year for Ish Sodhi.

Only a year ago his name was invoking heated debate.

He’d had a grand performance in the World Twenty in 2016, had followed it up spectacularly for the Adelaide Strikers in the Big Bash League, and was fast making a name for himself as a white-ball bowler.

But should those performances secure ODI chances? Even a Test recall? A flick through the Stuff.co.nz comments – an entertaining litmus test with a strong bias towards abuse – seemed to suggest a relatively equal split.

Sodhi has played six T20 Internationals since then: three in India in November, and the recent series against the West Indies at home. He’s done well across the board – in those half-dozen games he’s snared eight wickets at 16 apiece, going at only a smidgen above seven an over.

It’s enough for Sodhi to have leapfrogged ahead of Imad Wasim, Rashid Khan, Samuel Badree, Imran Tahir and Shakib Al-Hasan into first in the ICC’s T20I bowling rankings – and that’s without looking at the quicks he’s beaten out.

With New Zealand now the top-ranked Twenty20 team, and Colin Munro the top T20 batsman, the Blackcaps have found themselves with a trio of first places in the shortest format.

On a balcony overlooking the Waikato River, soaking up some evening sun, Sodhi gave Mind the Windows his chapter of the How to Play Twenty20 manual.

***

You’re on a major stage, the captain’s tossed you the ball, you’re at the top of your mark for the first ball of your first spell, and you’re about to run in and bowl. What are you hoping for?

I guess if you’re hoping something goes right, you’ve kind of left something behind. I feel like if I’m absolutely prepared, leading up to that game, then I would feel confident that the ball ends up where I want it to be. It just becomes tactical – as opposed to the past, where it was almost ‘hopefully this goes well, I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life,’ where there’s all those dreams of playing for the Blackcaps and playing for ND, playing First Class cricket. I guess once you’ve ticked a few of those boxes, it almost becomes, ‘okay, what do I need to do now? What do I need to do to help me be successful?’

Feelings don’t come into it, you have to channel those feelings, and think really tactically. That’s, I think, when you’re bowling at your best. So hopefully next time I get a chance to play for New Zealand that’s all I’m thinking, tactics.

You’re thinking tactics – what are those in a Twenty20, and how are they different to the other formats?

So I suppose when you look at four-day cricket, and I think this is where I’ve found my most success in four-day cricket, is understanding what my stock-ball is on any given day. Whether that’s an over-spinner or a side-spinner or back-spinner, or something like that – what I can bowl to get the most out of a surface.

In T20 it’s really important to know what your stock ball is, but that sometimes means your length is completely different. Whether it’s a little bit further back because the boundaries straight are really short, and you can’t let them step and hit the ball over your head, or a bit fuller because the boundaries square are really short and you want to get under the bat.

First and foremost, finding what your length is for the surface is really important. And then it pretty much comes down to defending, generally, 20 out of your 24 balls that you have available. And that might mean bowling at their legs, because you know they’re not great sweepers so you know the most they can get is one. Or it’s bowling really wide, when you know you want to get it out their arc.

The best way I’ve ever heard it depicted was in an article where Ashwin was speaking about T20 bowling, and T20 bowling and planning an over for him meant ‘six well-constructed bad balls’, which I think would make absolute sense for a cricket purist, if you contrast it with thinking about hitting the top-of-off consistently.

My best ball in four-day cricket generally goes out of the park in T20 cricket. I can probably bowl it two-to-three times in a game, and sometimes more if the wicket’s turning. You have to make that call out there in the middle, and that’s why T20 is so phenomenal, because all the bowling plans you have on any given plan, you have to be able to change them from A, B, C, D and have the skills to do that.

It seems to be increasingly the case that you have spinners that succeed in T20 cricket with a bag of tricks, but those same balls and same talents haven’t had huge results in First Class cricket. Why does that succeed more in the shortest format?

You’ve got perhaps less variables, you know what kind of approach the batsman’s going to bring, and it’s always going to be an aggressive approach. Whether they hit the gaps to get eight an over, or they try to hit boundaries to get eight an over, they’re always constantly trying to get eight-to-ten an over.

If you bowl two to three dots, you might bowl a couple of single balls, you know the last ball or the over – or one of the balls in the over – they’re going to have to try get a boundary to stay up with the rate. So you can plan for that.

Where in four-day cricket, I’ve had guys in the past that have scored hundreds in two completely different ways. They’ve sat on me all day and waited for me to miss, or because the field’s up they’ve taken the attack to me early. And so you can never expect the batsman to do the same thing constantly, over-and-over again. Whereas in T20 cricket I think you can plan a little bit more for the way batsmen play, and the way they’re trying to get their runs.

In turn, that gives you confidence to bowl what you plan to bowl.

Field placements and field restrictions are a totally different ball-game in T20 to anything else; how do you plan a field when half the time the batsmen are going over it?

Your four guys in the ring are really important, and if you’re not attacking with a slip you’ve gotta have your gaps in the field and use them quite wisely. So say if I don’t have a mid-wicket in, it allows me to bowl straight, and I know that they’re going to try turn the face to get their single. If it turns, my fielders are in business on the off-side.

I know sometimes when a new batsman comes in, that I can have an extra guy at mid-wicket, so I’ve got single protectors everywhere, so he has to be really cautious of where he hits his single. Otherwise he’s going to get a couple of dots.

So I guess in simple terms, knowing when to attack and knowing when to defend is really important in the ring. Whereas my five guys out of ring hardly ever change unless the batsman’s doing something like reverse-sweeping or reverse-hitting, something like that.

But 95% of batters don’t do that, so you can plan for it.

When it does come to someone who reverse-sweeps and reverse-hits: It’s ten-to-eight on a Friday night, Auckland’s doing alright, Colin Munro’s on about 15 not-out. You’ve been chucked the ball by Dean Brownlie. What are you thinking? What’s the plan?

Well I know Colin Munro’s on strike, and I know the guy at the other end is most likely not as devastating as Colin Munro. So the first thing that comes to my head is how can I get him off strike? How can I keep him at the non-striker’s end for as long as possible?

Because I know for my team that’s a positive, because we won’t get hit for – most of the time – as many runs. And we know that the more that guy loves playing his shots, and the less strike that he faces, the more likely he is to do something a little bit out of the ordinary. So that’s my number one focus. How can I bowl to the other guy as much as I can.

That’s obviously a pretty T20-specific plan, given keeping someone off strike for a few deliveries can be a significant chunk of the 120 balls in an innings – it’s not something you can really do in a four-day game. Does that mean T20 becomes more about the duck-and-weave rather than the cat-and-mouse type battle you have to get a batsman out in First Class cricket?

I think my entire approach to four-day cricket has changed quite a bit. I used to try to get batsmen out, I used to try to do different things with my wrist and bowl different variations to, you know, plan for their dismissal. Where now I think there’s an area on the pitch, if I bowl the ball there and I spin it away, I spin it in, I bowl it straight, it’s always asking a question. Often I don’t even plan to bowl my wrong’un anymore, I just bowl it, because I want to do something different and put it in that same area. Often the batsmen make the mistake.

Where in T20 cricket, I think your variations are really important. If you’re bowling to Colin Munro, and there’s a short boundary on his leg side, and you’re spinning the ball back into him you’re looking for trouble – because it’s an easy shot for him to pick it up and hit it for six. So you have to resort to your wrong’un straight away, and it might have to be a slightly different length. A little bit shorter so he can’t step and hit it, he has to come out of his crease, and so another risk is formed. Increasing the risk for the batsman to try and hit you for boundaries is crucial, where in four-day cricket if you put the ball in the right area over and over again, something happens.

Let’s say those plans don’t come off, you’ve gone for 25 off two overs, and have to come in for a third over. How do you come back from that?

You’ve gotta separate yourself from each over you bowl in T20 cricket, and I think sometimes you have to even separate yourself from the last ball that you’ve bowled – definitely more so in T20 cricket than four-day cricket.

The best coaches I’ve had have always told me that if your first ball goes for four, or your first ball goes for six in T20 cricket, you’re thinking how can you limit the damage of the over. So you’re going for even 13, as opposed to going for 23.

When the momentum’s in the batsman’s favour, that ‘well-constructed bad ball’ to get a batsman off strike, so he can’t easily hit you for four, or hit you for six, is so crucial.

That’s thinking ball-by-ball, but then your role might change tremendously in T20 cricket, so those overs you bowled for 25 might have been in the Powerplay. And now you’ve come back on to bowl, and the field’s spread all of a sudden, and your next two overs go for eight. You’ve gone for 33, and a batsman might have accidentally chipped out to long-on or something and you’ve got 1-33. You can always bring it back. Where if you allow those first two overs to sit in the back of your mind, and continue bowling the way you were, you go for 50. And that goes a long way towards helping lose the game for your team.

Compare that kind of response, and your understanding of what to do under pressure, to when you first started back in 2012-13. Your first game was at Mount Maunganui against Wellington, New Year’s Day, and Tamim Iqbal and Jesse Ryder were going great guns. What didn’t you know then that you know now – how much were you shitting yourself then?

I don’t think I was packing myself as such, but I only knew that the best delivery that I had was a leg-spin delivery that drifts in, hits the deck, turns away, and they get caught at first slip. But in T20 cricket, what I realised then was that ball is the easiest one to come down and hit over the top of your head. Because it’s a bit slower, the pitches are really good in T20 cricket now – so the ball is not likely to turn that much, so you’re always bowling to the batsman’s arc. I continued to do that in that spell, because that’s all I knew how to do.

Tamim was going straight and Jesse was going sideways.

They were going sideways, and it was easy for them to hit straight. Where now I know bowling at the Mount, I have to bowl a hard length, because the boundaries are big towards the square side, and shorter straight. So I’m not trying to bowl that ball to nick him off to first slip, I’m more so trying to bowl that ball that takes the top of leg-stump quite hard. I guess that just comes through experience, and that also comes from being exposed to the game of Twenty20 cricket, because it is totally different to any other format, just like the others are different to T20.

When you look at those days, through to now when you’ve played Big Bash in Australia, for Notts in England, and a World Twenty20 in the subcontinent, how does New Zealand set you up as a T20 breeding ground?

I think the biggest thing that we have as an advantage, as New Zealand spinners, is we have to be able to put a lot of revs on the ball. Otherwise we’re not really going to achieve too much from the surface. If you look at guys like Jeetan Patel, Mitchell Santner, these guys put a phenomenal amount of revs on the ball for finger-spinners, and it’s just a result of your conditions – where overseas a lot of finger-spinners are rollers, but still get a lot of purchase off the wicket. I think that’s why it helps when you go overseas, and there’s something to offer in the surface, it really does help that we can get a little bit more turn and bounce than some other guys perhaps.

That was seen pretty clearly in the 2016 World Twenty20 in India, where you and Mitchell Santner looked like completely different bowlers.

That’s the thing, we bowl exactly like that here and you sometimes get whacked. Grounds are small, and the wickets don’t offer too much so you can hit through the line. Where over there I think, sometimes if you do bowl your best ball and the wicket is offering you something, there’s a lot larger margin of error. I guess we benefited from that in that particular tournament.

One of the things when you go from New Zealand – where your Twenty20 sides are your provinces, are your domestic sides, it’s all part of the same structure – to Australia, where you’re playing the Big Bash for specially crafted T20 teams, you’ve got different coaches to the state structure, it’s a purely Twenty20 environment. Do you feel that difference in, maybe, intensity?

I think you can definitely see that Twenty20 is becoming specialised now.

And obviously the coaching staff, and the environment that’s created from the senior players of certain teams, drives that. But also, say, 50% of players that play in T20 leagues and T20 competitions don’t play any other form of cricket, so while the four-dayers of a country or the one-dayers of a country are on, those boys are back home training Twenty20 cricket.

If you’re year-in, year-out, training how to hit the ball for six, and how to do amazing things in the field, and run-outs, and fast-paced stuff, and yorkers, the intensity goes up anyway because the skill level goes up. I think that’s what you’re seeing a lot more of, is T20 becoming specialised nowadays.

Guys, right-arm seamers, are coming around the wicket and bowling heel yorkers, wide yorkers from around the wicket. I’d say 10, 15 years ago, if guy came in and did that you’d laugh him off, and he’d be on his way. But that’s become really effective. So guys are just training it more and more, and specialising it. I think that’s why the intensity has gone up.

Do you think that specialisation of Twenty20 has impacted spinners maybe more than other bowlers?

I think the value of a straight ball has become really important. If you watch all the best spinners in the world, they have a ball that goes fast and straight. But other than that, I think spinners are starting to back themselves a lot more, because seeing a lot of spinners around the world be successful kind of shows you that there’s a place for spinners in T20 cricket. I think watching guys like Imran Tahir, Samuel Badree and Rashid Khan do really well is a big confidence booster for spinners growing with the game.

It has still been the case that the very best spinners, and particularly wrist-spinners, in T20 – from Daniel Vettori to Imran Tahir and guys like Brad Hogg – tend to have that very strong Test cricket background. There’s that element of the well-constructed bad ball, but you have to know how to bowl that bad ball well.

Absolutely, you can’t just give the ball to a random spin bowler who’s never played any cricket in his life, or never really understood—

Bowling some jammy darts.

Yeah, bowling some jammy darts! ‘Here you go,’ you know, ‘bowl me six well-constructed bad balls’. I think to wrap your head around that, you have to have some degree of work put into your spin bowling. So I think the characteristics of the best Test spin bowler in the world, help you in any form of the game. That’s why Test cricket is the hardest to do well in consistently, you need a lot more skills for Test cricket than you need for T20, but if you have those skills it’s a lot easier to adjust. Where I think people that do really well in T20 consistently will find it a lot harder to do as well in Test cricket. But yeah, I think you’ve gotta have revs on the ball, and you’ve gotta know where you’re trying to bowl the ball. It’s as simple as it gets.

To go off topic for a second, how much of a freak is Brad Hogg?

Yeah. Just shows what you can do, you know? He’s got 21 years on me, so gives me a bit of hope that I can hopefully continue improving for a long time yet to come.

Got 21 years of Big Bash contracts – 21 years of IPL contracts hopefully.

I love playing T20 cricket, and I love playing one-day cricket, but there’s a big part of me that still really wants to play Test cricket and play it well, and so still having that focus in mind while still trying to grow with the game of T20 is probably the next challenge for me. I think it’ll come with just that understanding of my bowling growing more and more each day. It’s a new year, so start planning for certain things now and take it day by day, that’s gonna be really important.

And getting those experiences of playing in Australia, playing in England, playing around the world for the Blackcaps, learning about playing on those different surfaces I imagine helps you when you’re facing different scenarios in New Zealand – in the sense of, does that opportunity of bowling on a UK featherbed means you’re ready for a flatter, harder wicket at home?

Yeah, the experience I had with Trent Bridge was one of the best experiences of my life. In terms of my own returns, it didn’t go the way perhaps I wanted it to, but I came away from it contributing to a winning team, got quite a few wickets, and accepted that T20 cricket’s going a certain way.

Then coming back here and applying the skills that I have, I’ve probably had the most successful campaign of T20 cricket in New Zealand this year that I’ve ever had. It’s probably just come down to being a little bit more resilient, and a little bit more, I guess, confident in what I’m doing. Just backing the process a little bit more, where in the past it was a little bit like, ‘I’ll do this because hopefully it’ll work out’. Where it’s almost like now it’s ‘this is what I need to do, because the team needs me to do this now’.

So those little things, you just get a bigger understanding of them with the more experiences you have. So the more of those experiences you can have, the better you’ll be.

Let’s bring it back to the World Twenty20 in 2016 for a moment. It’s India, in India. First ball of your spell. Kohli.

Yeah, jeez. It’s pretty surreal. Because I remember coming on to bowl, and the Powerplay had just been done. And Mitchell Santner and Nathan McCullum were so successful at the start, and it was turning. So I guess the pressure was on to carry that on, and so while the team is doing really well, you always feel a little bit of pressure, a bit of ‘that’s a hard act to follow, now those guys are really on and I have to continue doing this’.

There weren’t many runs on the board, and so if you didn’t bowl your two or three overs that well, towards the back end they were always going to get up, because they’re a fantastic team and they have so much experience in these conditions.

So to let that out, and as he drove the ball to hear that nick was almost like, oof.

That’s what it’s about, you can’t think about anything but your job. And everything else is out of your control. That aided me to help understand that more clearly.

Dismissing the best Twenty20 batsman in the world – by a country mile – with the first ball of your spell. In front of his home crowd. On the biggest stage there is in Twenty20. At what point did you realise that was going to be the headline the next day?

You don’t really, you know. We ended up absolutely hammering them, in terms of that game, on that day. So all you’re concerned about is just, woah, we just beat India in India, it’s a very tough thing to do. And nine out of the ten wickets that were taken, were by spin bowlers. Where notoriously teams come over there and get dominated by their spinners, it was just a nice feeling to have it turned around a little bit. That’s all we were thinking about at that stage.

Then I guess it’s something I can look back on and be really, really proud of, and to have that experience I’m really grateful for, and it only makes me a better cricketer to have banked that T20 World Cup experience. But I’m a firm believer now that it’s in the past, and so everything that I did last year, or in the last five years, isn’t irrelevant but I can bank on those experiences to help me move forward. That’s I think the healthiest way to look at it for me.

From 2012-13 with Tamim and Jesse going after you, to now – five years, and you’re the number one ranked Twenty20 bowler in the world.

Yeah, sitting here, hearing that… I actually forgot about it all of a sudden again. Being ranked number one I think is quite a special feeling, you feel like you’re doing certain things really well. But I also I think it’s helped me be the most motivated cricketer than I can be, the most motivated to get even better.

Because you see where your journey’s taken you to, and how you can achieve certain things that you didn’t think ever were possible. So yeah, I’m hoping to just continue that progress on, feed it into the other forms, become even better at T20, make more contributions with the bat – which I’m starting to really enjoy doing as well.

Just try and be the most dependable cricketer I can be for the team that I’m playing for. And as a result of that, I suppose you can get those accolades, but they just remind you that you are doing a job, and my job could change slightly in the next year or two years, but if I can get really good at doing my job on that particular day, it will make me the most successful I can be.

Not a bad effort though, best in the world at 25.

Yeah, number one in the world at 25. A young kid from Papatoetoe.

Bhupinder Singh will be proud.

Bhupi will be stoked! I remember just hoping one day – well, dreaming of playing one ODI for New Zealand. That would’ve been a dream come true. To sit down, and to have played some games for New Zealand, to have played for ND, and have found I guess a second home at Northern Districts Cricket, and how they’ve helped my development moving forward – I’ve had some fantastic experiences, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

I guess to see your name as number one in the world amongst some fantastic players – and guys that you look up to on a daily basis – your Imran Tahirs, your Samuel Badrees, and when you watch Rashid Khan bowl it’s just amazing to watch, to be among those names is definitely something I’m really proud of.


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