Shivam Mavi remembers February 6, 2017 vividly. He had just recovered from a side strain, and wanted to prove a point as he pitched for a berth in India's Under-19 World Cup squad. England Under-19s batted first at Brabourne Stadium that day, and Mavi "got into the zone" straightaway, castling Tom Banton with a nipbacker.
"Full delivery, swung in late, hit the seam, nipped back, and beat the inside edge to crash into the stumps," Mavi reminisced in a chat with ESPNcricinfo. "Mazaa aa gaya, Banton jaisa batsman ko out karna (It was fun, getting a batsman like Banton out)."
That's when things were going well for him. For a better part of the last three months, Mavi has binge-watched videos such as that one to kill time in Noida, where he lives. He hasn't played any competitive cricket since December 2019 because of a stress fracture in his back, and is only just feeling his way back into competitive cricket, just like on that day in 2017. After four months of rehabilitation, he feels fit and ready for the upcoming IPL season in the UAE, where he will have a chance to remind Banton about that delivery; the two are team-mates at Kolkata Knight Riders.
"The IPL being postponed has been a blessing in disguise for me," he said. "Had the IPL happened in April-May, I would have missed my second straight season. I was scheduled to recover only mid-April. Then to cope that kind of bowling workload straightaway may have been tough, so the last four months have given me time to recover, rehabilitate and become stronger."
"If I can bowl to a player like him, who can hit any ball anywhere, I can bowl to anyone. Sometimes, when I bowl to him, and he can't hit it the way he wants, he'll nod. That's a sign it was a good ball. Once you get confidence bowling to someone like him, you aren't afraid anymore" Shivam Mavi on bowling to Andre Russell in the Knight Riders nets
Mavi felt something was off as he bowled a probing spell in a Ranji Trophy game against Railways in Meerut last December. He felt strain in his back even as he went flat out to finish with figures of 6 for 83 in the match. After the game, he went for a scan that revealed an L1 disc injury. It was another setback. After all, the 21-year-old had felt he had made a complete recovery from another back problem just three months earlier.
"Two injuries back-to-back isn't easy, and I was down mentally," he said. "I kept thinking how things could go wrong. Fortunately, I had great motivators at NCA. Anand Date, our trainer, I've known him since my Under-19 days, so there was familiarity. He understands my body better than anyone. He, Amit Tyagi [NCA physio] and Ashish Kaushik [NCA head physio] charted my recovery, step by step. It took me four months to come back to full rhythm."
Mavi was bowling at "70 to 80%" in March when the initial lockdown was imposed. "I couldn't bowl for three months, so I was back down to zero again," he said. "Normally during rehab or training, when you spend all your energy, you tend to sleep well. During lockdown, because I wasn't spending that energy, I wasn't able to sleep. I used to be up until 3-4am sometimes, so not being able to bowl or train was a big challenge."
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Mavi returned to bowling in June and has since clocked in regular training, apart from gym work prescribed by the NCA. He has also kept in touch with the backroom staff at Knight Riders, and "can't wait to join the camp and bowl". For the last three weeks, he has spent considerable time with Suresh Raina and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, training and practicing with them at a private facility in Noida after lockdown restrictions were lifted.
"Bhuvi bhaiya teaches you a lot, just the skills he has is amazing," Mavi said. "He only keeps telling me, 'swing is your natural strength'. I feel I have good pace anyway, so I don't worry about that aspect. If I can retain that swing, I can be lethal even at 135 kph. I've honestly never thought about pace. For me, rhythm is most important."
Mavi clocked 149kph at the Under-19 World Cup in 2018. This combination of pace and swing made him and Kamlesh Nagarkoti a deadly pair during India's victorious run at the tournament. Knight Riders staved off aggressive bidding from Delhi Capitals prior to the 2018 edition, and when the hammer went down, he was sold for 15 times his base price for INR 3 crore ($470,000 approx. at the time).
He impressed immediately.
"I remember my first wicket like yesterday, I want that feeling back - Gautam Gambhir, at a packed Eden Gardens," Mavi said. "That itself was like pressure, because he has led the team [Knight Riders] to two titles. But fans were roaring for me this time because he was playing for Delhi Daredevils [Capitals' earlier avatar]. I bowled a length ball, got it to skid, he looked to punch and was played on. That roar after the wicket, I still get goosebumps. That feeling we may not have this time because we will play behind closed doors, but that was a different feeling altogether."
Mavi suggested that the biggest change in his approach to T20 bowling has come because of bowling to Andre Russell in the Knight Riders' nets. "If I can bowl to a player like him, who can hit any ball anywhere, I can bowl to anyone," he said. "Sometimes, when I bowl to him, and he can't hit it the way he wants, he'll nod. That's a sign it was a good ball. Once you get confidence bowling to someone like him, woh darr khatam ho jaati hai (you aren't afraid anymore)."
On their part, Knight Riders have gone out of their way at times to ensure young talent such as Mavi and Nagarkoti, who has also had his fair brush with injuries, haven't been lost to the game. Both players, and others part of the set-up, have been part of the franchise's academy programme where they are monitored twice a year under specialised coaches in Abhishek Nayar and Omkar Salvi. It has helped in a big way.
"That support has been immense," he said. "They look after us amazingly well. They care for us. At these camps, you learn so much more about your game. They have worked on me not just on the bowling aspect, but also on my batting. As a franchise, they are very chilled out. Initially when me, Nagarkoti and Shubman Gill went into the dressing room for the first time, we were very nervous and overawed. But immediately we were made to feel welcome.
"Someone like Shah Rukh Khan comes and talks to you like he knows you from many years, laughs and dances with you, such things makes us feel very special. I'm feeling fresh physically and mentally. I can't wait to start training and bowling for KKR again."