Sai Sudharsan: 'Still get goosebumps when I think about the standing ovation'

The Titans dugout welcomes B Sai Sudharsan back after a stunning knock
May 31, 2023

Baby Malinga Matheesha Pathirana marginally misses a wide yorker. B Sai Sudharsan stretches out, extends his hands, and laces Pathirana over the extra-cover boundary. Ravi Shastri, on commentary, describes it as the "shot of the match so far". Sudharsan then immediately betters that shot by launching a 147kph fuller delivery over the bigger long-on boundary. MS Dhoni keeps his poker face and follows the trajectory of the ball. Sudharsan's captain Hardik Pandya is so impressed that he walks up to Sudharsan, puts his left arm on Sudharsan's shoulder, and wraps him up in a hug.

Sudharsan's parents Bharadwaj, a former athlete, and Usha, a former volleyball player who has also worked as a strength and conditioning coach with the Tamil Nadu cricket team, had travelled from Chennai to Ahmedabad for a three-day T20 final for these special moments. Sudharsan's elder brother Sairam, who is pursuing Masters in supply chain and logistics management at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, had originally planned to fly from Australia to Ahmedabad for the final, but he couldn't get tickets in the end.

Sudharsan and Gujarat Titans didn't get the fairytale ending that Ravindra Jadeja and Chennai Super Kings did, but once he returned to his hotel room in the wee hours of Tuesday, he watched the highlights of his shots against Pathirana and savoured them.

"In the last over, the shot over extra-cover off Pathirana was my favourite," Sudharsan tells Cricday. "On such a big stage, on such an occasion, I didn't expect to perform like this. But I was very happy. The trust that GT management gave [me]; in between I didn't play a few games, but the management always had trust in me. I was ready to play any game. I was definitely very happy; I came back to my room, and I was seeing [highlights] of my shots. It took a long time for me to process it."

For Sairam, who had stayed up until 8am AEST in Melbourne for the IPL final, that extra-cover six made everything worth it. "I've always been a big fan of his extra-cover shot," Sairam gushes. "We worked on it for months along with our parents during the Covid lockdown in Chennai. And the next shot I loved was his slog sweeps [off Maheesh Theekshana and Ravindra Jadeja]. I get nervous and start sweating whenever Sai bats, even during his [Chennai] league games. I feel sad that I couldn't watch it live this time. Being in Australia and following IPL is one of the toughest things. But I'm very happy that his hard work is slowly reaping the benefits."

Sudharsan was even more emotional when asked about the standing ovation he had elicited from Titans' dugout after he fell for 96 off 46 balls - the third-highest individual score in an IPL final. Rashid Khan tapped Sudharsan's gloves as he walked in. Shubman Gill, David Miller, Jayant Yadav, Mohit Sharma and the support staff were all were on their feet. Sairam couldn't make it to Ahmedabad, but Sudharsan's 'big brother' in the Titans and Tamil Nadu dressing room, Vijay Shankar, welcomed him back with a bear hug. R Sai Kishore, also one of Sudharsan's closest friends, kept clapping for him until his hands hurt.

"I still get goosebumps when I think about the reception from the dugout," Sudharsan says. "The amount of confidence or the amount of support from my team-mates or support staff... Obviously me, Vijay anna (brother)... Sai Ki (Sai Kishore) are very close and share everything together. Vijay anna gave me my first TN cap. We speak a lot about cricket and life as well. To contribute in a big final and put the team in a superb position gives me a sense of satisfaction. Obviously, I didn't score a hundred, but I felt a sense of satisfaction when I walked back to the dugout."

Sudharsan also received a message from Kane Williamson whose role he had slotted into after the New Zealand captain returned home with a knee injury.

"My role was to take the game deep - same as Kane's role," Sudharsan says. "Even a few weeks back, after he had left for New Zealand, I was having a conversation with him over the phone. He's sweet. How sweet? He himself messaged me saying I could call him anytime and have a conversation over cricket anytime. Even last night, Kane texted me: "Very happy. You've done a great job!" I feel very happy that I tried my best to fill in Kane's role. Our roles were fixed during the preparatory camp before the start of the IPL. With that role, I tried to enhance my game and it worked out I feel."

At the innings break, Sudharsan was subbed out for left-arm quick Josh Little. He perhaps thought that he could just put his feet up and chill, but a tense finish left him anxious.

"Actually, I didn't have dinner after the innings," Sudharsan recalls. "Around the first strategic time-out, I went upstairs [from the dugout to the dressing room] and then in the next over, we got the wickets of both Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devon Conway. So, I didn't even move from that place and so I watched the entire game from that place (laughs) on TV. But, yeah, mixed feelings. I finished the first innings on a happy note, but the end was a little upsetting. But I feel we can learn from that and get better next year."

Despite the defeat, this was an incredible turnaround from Sudharsan, who had been retired out by Titans in the second qualifier against Mumbai Indians after he struggled to find a higher gear. It might have dented the confidence of most 21-year-olds. But Sudharsan is not most 21-year-olds. He took that strategic move in his stride and spoke about the significance of emotional detachment in T20 cricket.

"I had mixed feelings during that game too," Sudharsan says. "I think the first 20-25 balls went well for me. After a matter of a few dots, we had to make that strategic move, but that's 100% accepted and I took it in my stride. Because the way our batters were playing - Nos. 4,5,6,7 were explosive this year and also last year. I also felt, instead of me, it would be more fruitful for the team if those power-hitters were there in the middle at that point. I take it as an opportunity to learn because if I want to be there with the best, in terms of skill, I have to get better. In a way, I'm happy that it happened on such a big stage because it is now known to me that I've to get better in certain aspects of the game.

"I also had a chat with Vijay anna about retiring out after the MI match. If you're emotionally connected to the match, it becomes difficult because the IPL happens very quickly. They come thick and fast. It's about forgetting the previous game and moving onto the next game. If you do that, your season will be better. That was our conversation."

Sudharsan started slowly against CSK in the final, too - he was on 36 off 27 balls at one point - but he cranked up the tempo to smash 60 off his last 20 balls. Against Pathirana alone, he scored 34 off 14 balls. In the second qualifier against Mumbai, Sudharsan had tried to over-hit the ball and kept losing his shape. Against Pathirana, he sussed out that his balls were skidding on from the Ahmedabad pitch and focussed on maintaining his shape while meeting the ball.

"Pathirana is a very skiddy bowler. If you go too hard at him, you find there's less time," Sudharsan says. "If you try to time it rather than over-hit it, you can hit the right spot on the bat. The more side-arm [darts] you face, you might get used to that speed too and you can develop the habit to time the ball.

"As a batter, you have less exposure to such actions from a different release. I'd say I have a bit of an advantage facing slingers like R Silambarasan (net bowler at SRH) and G Periyaswamy (net bowler at RR) in the TNPL. I think subconsciously it might have been a little bit easier to face Pathirana."

Sudharsan also had a plan against R Ashwin when he was just 17. He had stayed back to defend balls, forcing the spinner to overpitch. Ashwin had left midwicket open, as he often does against left-handers, but Sudharsan stayed deep in his crease until he got a ball full enough to hit against the spin. He then played a cover drive, forcing Ashwin to adjust his line. Sudharsan then stepped out to hit Ashwin over midwicket for four. Recalling that Chennai league battle on his Youtube channel, Ashwin marvelled at Sudharsan: Adengappa idho paar ra indha paiyana (Wow, look at this boy!)

This boy has since won the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, TNPL, IPL and almost helped Titans defend their title this season. Sudharsan has been rated highly in the Tamil Nadu cricket circles since his age-group cricket days. Also, around the time he was 17, he was picked in Junior Super Kings' side, CSK's grassroots programme, for a tour of Yorkshire under the mentorship of Ambati Rayudu. How strange was it to go up against Rayudu in his last game in Indian cricket?

"More than being strange, I enjoyed playing against CSK," Sudharsan says. "Chennai na CSK thaan (Chennai is CSK). Chennai na Thala thaan (Chennai is Thala). It was a great opportunity to represent CSK's Junior team. Reading the game was something I learnt from the Yorkshire tour. The conditions were cold, and it was new for me to play cricket there. I remember I used to ask Rayudu how he bats in the IPL, how he tackles bowlers in the IPL, and I used to ask him questions."

Sudharsan just has a two-day break in Chennai before he travels to Coimbatore to join Shahrukh Khan's Lyca Kovai Kings for TNPL 2023. His TNPL contract (INR 21.6 lakh) is worth higher than his IPL contract (INR 20 lakh). If he keeps levelling up, the rest of the world will also go: "Wow, look at this boy!"

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