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There is something unassumingly brilliant about Sandeep Sharma, a crafty, old-school medium-pacer. He will not break speed records, or have batters hopping around, but he will hurt the opposition all the same - quietly, like with a whisper.

On Monday, in front of a boisterous home crowd in Jaipur, Sandeep knocked the wind out of Mumbai Indians' sails with 5 for 18, the season's best bowling performance. Also, his first five-for in 180 T20 games. This one helped Rajasthan Royals (RR) consolidate their position at the top of the IPL 2024 points table.

Sandeep is a classic example of a senior player - he is close to 31 - evolving and up-skilling. A constant in the IPL for over a decade, Sandeep used to be the powerplay specialist between 2014 and 2020 for Punjab Kings first and then Sunrisers Hyderabad. He picked up 49 powerplay wickets during this time - more than any other bowler in the competition - and went at less than seven runs an over.

He also made a name as a giant slayer. No bowler has dismissed Virat Kohli more often than Sandeep in the IPL - seven times in 15 innings; Rohit Sharma averages 7.60 against Sandeep, having fallen to him five times in 12 innings; Suryakumar Yadav has been dismissed four times in eight innings, averaging just 8.25; Chris Gayle struck at only 103.22 against him.

But Sandeep seemed to have lost his edge. It came after 2020. In 12 matches across 2021 and 2022, he only got five wickets, and just one in the powerplay. He was snubbed at the IPL 2023 auction. But he caught a lucky break when he was called up as a replacement player by Royals ahead of the season. And he came with an additional arrow in his quiver - of being effective in the death overs.

He had added more variations, he was consistently landing the knuckle-balls, had varieties of cutters, and while the powerplay wickets continued to remain elusive, Sandeep became one of Royals' go-to death bowlers in IPL 2023.

"I am thrilled for him because I know the work that he does behind the scenes," Tom Moody, Sandeep's former coach at SRH, said on ESPNcricinfo's TimeOut show. "He very much likes to be a part of it, likes to be in action, and he backs himself in any situation. That's why it hasn't really come as a huge surprise to me that he has adapted and bowled well as a death bowler for Rajasthan, which was unheard of, really.

"He has really honed his craft as a very good new-ball bowler, and [of] being very effective in the powerplay and in the middle overs. But he has suddenly surprised us all with Rajasthan's new role for him as a death-bowler, and he is nailing it."

Bowling in the powerplay remains Sandeep's first love, though. "I love bowling with the new ball. If you ask me today also where I feel more comfortable or [am] happy to bowl, I will say with the new ball."

On Monday, he got some of the love back.

A side strain had kept Sandeep out of Royals' last five matches - his previous appearance was on March 28. And he hit the ground running. Sandeep first sent Ishan Kishan back with a 121.2kph outswinger that Kishan could only edge to the wicketkeeper. Next, he nipped out Suryakumar with a scrambled-seam inswinger as MI were reduced to 20 for 3 in 3.1 overs. And then, with MI looking for some late impetus, Sandeep picked up three wickets in the last over to restrict them to 179.

Changes of pace did the trick for Sandeep on the night. Seventeen of the 24 balls he bowled were cutters. On a surface that was a touch slow and low, pace-off helped him reap the rewards.

"If you are bowling in the death overs, it can go both ways. Sometimes you can go for runs, sometimes if you bowl well - and if you are lucky enough - you can end up getting wickets. That is what happened tonight," Sandeep said. "With the old ball, you have to adapt and evolve as a bowler. You have seen in this year's IPL that the bowlers are going [for] big [runs]. The batters are coming and swinging. Because of this Impact Player [rule], we have an extra batsman, so high-scoring games are there. You have to have a big heart in the death overs."

Wasim Jaffer reckons that Sandeep's biggest asset is using his pace, or lack of it, to his advantage. "He knows that he doesn't have a pace of 140, so he bowls within the stumps and puts the field according to his bowling. He gets the keeper up if he needs to, gets square leg [to move], gets long-on [to move], and he bowls within the stumps," Jaffer said. "Sometimes I feel these kinds of pitches also help him, where it skids on. It doesn't give you that elevation. So he uses that to his advantage. I think what he has improved is his death bowling, which he didn't for most of his career; now he's improved that as well. He bowls those slower bouncers, those knuckle-balls. He is getting better with age."

Sandeep understands his limitations. He knows what he can't do, and he knows what he can do - he can do variations. On a surface where both teams scored at close to nine an over, and even Jasprit Bumrah went at 9.25, Sandeep bowled with an economy of 4.5. The snub at the 2023 auction still bothers him, and he is taking each game as a "bonus", but making sure the learning does not stop.