For the past five years of the Indian Premier League, the sight of Mohit Sharma’s trademark bowling run-up – the staggered few hops at the start to set in motion a galloping charge towards the pitch – had become rare. In fact, the 2018 season was the last time he was a regular – that time with the Chennai Super Kings. He got to play just a match each the following two seasons and was absent for the 2021 and 2022 seasons altogether.

Yet on Thursday, at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali, the former Purple Cap winner was back in action for the first time since 2020. Donning the Gujarat Titans uniform, the 34-year-old bowled a phenomenal spell of 2/18 at the end of his allotted four overs. It was a performance that helped the Titans restrict the Punjab Kings to 153/8, before successfully chasing down the total with a ball to spare in a six-wicket win.

Though Shubhman Gill earned plaudits during the run-chase with his 67 off 49, it was Sharma who was awarded the player of the match award for a stunning performance at the end of an equally impressive comeback.

“Last year I played domestic cricket after the back surgery, but lots of people didn’t know that I still played,” he said during a mid-innings interview.

“There was excitement but also some nervousness about getting back after such a long time – I last played three years ago. But in between I kept playing in the domestic circuit and worked hard.”

Sharma was a net bowler with Titans last season.

“When Ashu bhai (head coach Ashish Nehra) called me up asking me if I want to be in the team, he told me that if someone gets injured I might get a chance. Obviously, if you’re playing cricket somewhere you always want to upgrade. For that you need competitive practice. I felt what am I going to do at home? Might as well do the competitive practice, spend time in cricket, and I did that and that was good for me,” he said.

Thursday’s match was Sharma’s first match in the IPL in three years – coincidentally, his comeback in the league came on April 13, exactly 10 years after he made his IPL debut for CSK against Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2013.

But his first IPL cap since 2020 though hasn’t come out of the blue. He’s been working with the Titans since last season as a help bowler and has been closely monitored by the support staff. Playing behind the scenes though – for a man who has played a the highest levels of the sport and is a World Cup semifinalist from 2015 – was not beneath him.

“Being a net bowler is not a bad thing. You’re getting good exposure, you’re with good players. Unless you’re in a competitive environment your cricket will not evolve. In my case, the atmosphere created by Ashu bhai, or Vikram Solanki and Gary Kirsten... the net bowlers who are with us this year, they are a part of the team and we all stay together like a team. It was the same with me as well. We were all with the team,” he said.

Mohit Sharma's IPL bowling career

Career 87 1778 2488 94 4/14 26.47 8.40 18.91 1 0
2023 1 24 18 2 2/18 9.00 4.50 12.00 0 0
2020 1 24 45 1 1/45 45.00 11.25 24.00 0 0
2019 1 18 27 1 1/27 27.00 9.00 18.00 0 0
2018 9 178 322 7 2/33 46.00 10.85 25.42 0 0
2017 14 274 410 13 2/24 31.53 8.97 21.07 0 0
2016 14 291 407 13 3/23 31.30 8.39 22.38 0 0
2015 16 342 481 14 3/25 34.35 8.43 24.42 0 0
2014 16 323 452 23 4/14 19.65 8.39 14.04 1 0
2013 15 304 326 20 3/10 16.30 6.43 15.20 0 0
via iplt20

Staying and working with the team earned him a call-up for the match in Mohali. Albeit, the role on Thursday was different. Through most of his career, Sharma has been an opening bowler, but for the Titans he was given responsibility of taking charge of the middle overs. He played the role admirably, slowing down the Kings’ run-rate and dismissing Jitesh Sharma and Sam Curran.

“I was prepared for it earlier. Even in the nets I knew I’d be bowling (in the middle overs), that was the role given to me. I knew there was an 80-85 percent chance that I’d be bowling after the 10th over. I think (that planning) is important. The credit for that goes to the coach – the role is defined and the environment is created, your role is defined very early,” he said during the post-match presentation, after he was awarded the player of the match.

“I felt the pitch could be on the slower-side, that’s what happened. There was some dew, so I thought I’d try the variations. I was fortunate, (captain) Hardik (Pandya) was with me, whenever I felt I wanted to change something, we could discuss and have a clear vision.”

That vision and execution now sees the Titans move back up to the joint-leaders position in the IPL table, having played four and lost one. They next play the Rajasthan Royals on April 16. And with Sharma now back and revving to go again, there’s a problem of plenty in the hands of the coaching staff.