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cricket:image:1442916 [900x600] (Credit: Associated Press)

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Washington Sundar isn't usually a big celebrator of wickets, but on Wednesday against Zimbabwe in Harare, he celebrated each of his three wickets with gusto. And after winning the Player-of-the-Match award for his 3 for 15 in four overs, he let his emotions show once again.

"Feels amazing," he said with a big smile.

Washington had had little reason to smile during IPL 2024. Zero runs and zero wickets in all of two games. Rookie Nitish Kumar Reddy displaced him as Sunrisers Hyderabad's first-choice allrounder, and the likes of Shahbaz Ahmed and Vijayakanth Viyaskath were preferred ahead of him with the ball.

Despite his forgettable IPL season, India's management reportedly put in a last-minute request to the selectors to include Washington in their 2024 T20 World Cup squad. Washington eventually lost out to Axar Patel, who is now India's first-choice spin-bowling allrounder in T20Is following Ravindra Jadeja's retirement from the format.

Washington was then back in the mix for the five-match T20I series in Zimbabwe. Across three games so far, he has shown why India keep going back to him: apart from R Ashwin, he is the only bowler in the country who can bowl accurate offspin as well as contribute with the bat.

His laser-like accuracy with the ball shut down Zimbabwe's chase of 183. He was brought into the attack immediately after the powerplay, when Sikandar Raza was itching to break free. But Washington kept the stumps in play and forced Raza to manufacture a sweep and hole out to one of the bigger pockets of the ground at deep midwicket for 15 off 16 balls.

Then, with a left-hander to work with, Washington dangled up a big-turning offbreak to Johnathan Campbell from around the wicket and drew an outside edge, which substitute Riyan Parag held onto at first slip. Zimbabwe were 39 for 5 in seven overs, and Washington tightened the screws even further thereafter, getting the ball to both turn and bounce on a grippy, two-paced pitch.

Washington is largely a dart-it-in spinner in T20 cricket, but he sussed out the Harare conditions quickly and bowled Test-match-style offbreaks with more revs on the ball. At one point, the broadcaster put up a graphic showing the average turn achieved by India's spinners. Washington had generated 2.5 degrees of turn on average, in comparison to wristspinner Ravi Bishnoi's 2.3 degrees and left-arm fingerspinner Abhishek Sharma's 0.8 degrees.

After spending much of IPL 2024 on the bench, Washington returned to Chennai and shook off the ring rust by turning out for his club in the TNCA first-division league. He wheeled away for 112 overs across three games, picking up seven wickets.

"I've been preparing on my own terms though I wasn't playing a lot of games," Washington said after the third T20I in Harare. "I knew for a fact that, or I believed for a fact that, it would pay off whenever it has to. It has been good so far in this series."

By the time Washington returned to the attack in the 17th over, Dion Myers and Clive Madande were mounting a fightback of sorts, but he ended it by pushing one wide of off. The wide line messed with Madande's shape and had him dragging a slog-sweep to deep midwicket. Washington came away with career-best T20I figures, which were also his third-best in terms of economy rate in games where he has bowled his full allotment of four overs.

Washington refused to pick the wicket that he enjoyed the most but provided a peek into his plans. "I knew Sikandar Raza was always going to go big right from the first ball and I'm glad to have gotten him out," he said. "But this one [Campbell wicket]… just before that ball, Riyan told me it would be good if he could get a catch. He came in as a substitute and it was great for me to execute it that way. Even the last one, I really wanted to take it wide because I knew he [Madande] was looking to go big on the on side."

Washington the lower-order batter is still a work in progress. He had shown glimpses of his big-hitting and inventiveness in the Christchurch ODI in 2022 and in the Ranchi T20I, also against New Zealand, in 2023. However, more recently, in the T20I series opener in Harare, he failed to finish a chase on a two-paced track.

Washington made his white-ball debut for India in 2017, and has missed five World Cups since due to injury, lack of form, or competition for places. But with Jadeja retiring from T20Is and an ageing Ashwin no longer in India's T20I plans, 2026 could finally be Washington's time, especially if he stays fit and adds more power to his batting.