Three years before he made his Test debut, two years before he masterminded his domestic side Gujarat to its first-ever Ranji Trophy title, Jasprit Bumrah stopped by at the Vizianagaram Stadium, aglow in his Indian Premier League fame, wooing scattered crowds to the ground.
An idyllic venue, fringed with slender areca palms piercing the skies, had rolled out a green track, as was the practice in those days in Andhra cricket to suit the hosts’ quartet of medium pacers. Put in to bat, Gujarat piled 308, a daunting total on that surface, before openers KS Bharat and Prasanth Kumar strode in.
Just as Bharat was warming up, captain Mohammad Kaif sidled up to the young opener: “Here’s the opportunity, grab it.” Bharat replied with a firm smile. By then, he was four seasons into his first-class career, had peeled out a run-a-ball triple hundred against Goa the edition before, and had something of a Virender Sehwag-of-the-South reputation. But as Andhra had languished mostly in the Plate Division, he was yet to prove his mettle against a top-class side. Gujarat too were not elites then, but their bowling attack was canny with RP Singh and Roosh Kalaria as an able support cast to Bumrah.
“A top-class attack and Bumrah was red hot those days. There was a bit of bounce and swing in the track. A lot of discussions before and during the match were on how to face him. There were understandably some nerves, but Bharat seemed confident as well as determined,” Kaif recounts.
In the next four hours or so, Kaif realised the reason behind his confidence, so much so that his hundred — 127 off 201 balls — convinced the former India batsman that Bharat had the potential to play at a higher level. “Just the way he blunted him (Bumrah), saw off some fiery spells throughout the day, made me believe that this boy is really good, that he should be groomed. It was a difficult wicket, RP and Bumrah were bowling really well. But he was always assured. That hundred gave him the belief that he could play at a higher level. It changed his career,” he says.
Learning to enjoy
The hundreds, though, were few and far between for Bharat until the previous season. It gnawed at him, like termites on old wood. “In the early days of my Andhra stint, he used to score quickfire thirties and fifties, and then would become a victim of his own aggression. He used to get super upset, but told me he could not resist playing those strokes. I told him to just chill and not to think too seriously about the game or getting hundreds. Get the fun back and bat with a relaxed mind and the big scores will follow. The good thing with Bharat is that he is a good listener, and always receptive,” Kaif says. And the hundreds began to roll.
But towards the end of the season, one that ended with a 75-run defeat at the hands of Maharashtra in Lahli in the quarterfinal, Kaif was locked in another chat with Bharat. A more career-altering one. “He was an excellent wicketkeeper and an opening batsman. But he was performing the two most difficult roles in cricket, and in the end, it would take a toll on his body. He was superbly fit and was young, but I told him that doing both for a long time would curtail his career. Injuries and fatigue would creep in. So, I advised him to bat in the middle order. I pointed out the examples of Adam Gilchrist, Kumar Sangakkara and Mark Boucher,” Kaif recollects.
Bharat, though, was reluctant. His apprehensions were understandable. Unless one showed aptitude in batting as well as ’keeping, chances for that upward leap would be difficult in this day and age. Especially so when playing for a lower-rung team like Andhra. But gradually, rays of wisdom seeped into him and he made the painful yet productive decision to relinquish his opening duties. “He blended seamlessly into the new role. Adaptability is one of his strengths,” Kaif says.
Back in Visakhapatnam, Bharat’s coach J. Krishna Rao was scantily surprised. He was reminded of the day he told him to embrace the ’keeping gloves. Bharat was barely a teenager when the coach was wowed by his reflexes when fielding at short-leg. “He eagerly took it from me, and had no reservations or objections. He once told me ‘give me any role, I will do that. I just want to play cricket’,” he says.
The sport was an escape from the rigours of academics. Bharat narrates his inclinations in a Royal Challengers Bangalore Bold Diaries episode: “I thought what could keep me from school for the longest time. It was cricket. There was training in the morning and the evening, then there were tournaments. So, I needn’t be attending school and tuition all the time.” Soon attending school was an interval between cricketing sessions than the other way round.
But at the same time, Bharat couldn’t entirely neglect academics either, the soundtrack of most middle-class families in the country. “My parents were supportive, and the only time they had doubts was when I had a one-off bad season in U-16 cricket. But then my coach and father had a discussion. To this day, I don’t know what they talked about, but in the end, my father told me to pursue my passion,” he says. It was his father who had enrolled him at a cricket academy, so that the neighbours would stop complaining of broken glasses and Bharat disarranging their gardens.
Rao, too, doesn’t remember the conversation. All he remembers is a hyper-eager boy, who was disciplined and willing to work hard. “It’s not talent that I look for in boys, anyone can have talent, and we all have one talent or the other, but I look for passion and commitment. He had a lot of that, and he never complained about anything,” remembers Rao, a former Andhra and National Cricket Academy (NCA) bowling coach.
When Bharat walked out to the field as Wriddihman Saha’s substitute in the recent first Test against New Zealand in Kanpur, Rao was reminded of his uncomplaining nature. “He must have been asked to ’keep at a short notice, and a lot of ’keepers in a similar situation would have objected or even panicked, but I am sure he wouldn’t have. He would have taken that as an opportunity to show his skills to the world,” he observes.
As Bharat would later say, he got exactly 12 minutes to prepare. His coach wasn’t surprised. “He is very adaptive to different situations and roles. Just look at the different positions he bats for different teams. For RCB, he opens. For Andhra, he bats in the middle order. The other day, he was telling me that he wants to be a finisher in white-ball cricket. In red-ball cricket, he is a steady batsman; in white ball, he can be very aggressive,” Rao says. Just as he was saying this, Bharat was reeling out 161 off 109 in a Vijay Hazare Trophy encounter against Himachal Pradesh.
Soon, Rao’s judgement to hand the ’keeping gloves to the teenager, a decade and a half ago stood vindicated. The coach couldn’t take his eyes off the television, as he kept adroitly on a low-bounce Green Park wicket, showing the elasticity of an alley cat. There was balletic grace, a minimalism of movement when he swooped low to pouch a shooter, or when he glided leg-side to pocket a wayward ball. Every movement was measured, every muscle in place. “That’s the thing about him, he’s always there. He has such good anticipation that he seldom has to make last-minute adjustments,” he says.
Rao urges to watch the stumping of Tom Latham — Bharat gathered the ball after the batsman had inside-edged to the ground — and the outside-edged catch to dismiss Will Young repeatedly to grasp the simple yet complex movements of his body. “But most importantly, just watch how much he enjoys his ’keeping. He is someone who is madly in love with the art of ’keeping,” he says.
In the Bold Diary episode, too, Bharat talks about ’keeping as excitedly as a love-struck teenager. “I simply love ’keeping. It gives me a lot of joy,” he would repeat.
The devotion went unreciprocated for a long time. Till his U-19 days, T Vamsi Krishna was the preferred ’keeper in all notable age-group tournaments. But he was hardly deterred. “I don’t remember him complaining even once. He would just keep on polishing his ’keeping and be ready in case he was asked at short notice,” the coach says.
Just like that, just as his first outing for India in a Test – even if that would not be counted as an official appearance – he got his first break when Krishna was injured. Bharat kept the gloves for the rest of his career, and Vamsi’s First-Class career came to a premature end, his last appearance coming in 2012. “He has a knack of making his chances count,” Rao says.
Stellar as his glovework was in Kanpur, Bharat was ignored for the South Africa tour. Understandably so, as he is behind Rishabh Pant and Saha in the hierarchy. But Pant is prone to the vagaries of form, Saha, at 37, is nearing the end of his career and frequently breaking down. Time won’t be long before Bharat becomes a regular deputy of Pant, and if stars and shows align, could usurp him too. “He can be restless, but he’s an extremely patient person. We have seen that already, haven’t we?” asks Rao.
Kaif recollects another old conversation he had with him. “I remember telling him not to rush through the career and that he should not be disheartened if someone else is fast-tracked into the national team. You need to spend 4-5 years on the domestic circuit, so that you experience failures and success, you learn how to come back from failures and deal with them. You also learn to enjoy your success even more. He would listen patiently” he says.
He still remembers the first time he cast his eyes on the youngster and stood transfixed by his batting. The back-foot stroke, he emphasises. The backfoot punches, he reiterates. “He played in a very classical way, both his feet would be in the air and his bat would come through in a nice, fluid arc. He had it all, the cuts, the pulls, the drives,” Kaif says.
Kaif’s emphasis on green tracks during his tenure at Andhra, too, played a part in steeling up Bharat’s game against swing and seam bowling. “We didn’t have good spinners, so we had to rely on medium pacers. So, we used to prepare green tracks to suit our strengths. It, in turn, made our batsmen more competent against quality quicks,” he says. And culminated in that hundred against Bumrah and Co at Vizianagaram.
The coach, too, has a similar piece of advice to his ward. “Don’t rush, be patient,” he says. As an afterthought, he quips: “No need to tell, he already would know it. Haven’t we seen it already?” Like when he waited for the gloves, like he waited for that day in Vizianagaram, like he waited for that moment at Green Park.