In Bairstow’s absence, Punjab Kings will be left with two choices for a specialist wicket-keeper – Prabhsimran Singh and Jitesh Sharma.
29-year-old Jitesh played 12 matches last season and scored 234 runs at an average of 29.25, including 12 maximums.
In the 2022-23 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Jitesh featured in 10 games for Vidarbha and scored 224 runs at an average of 56.00. He also scored an unbeaten half-century in the tournament.
The Vidarbha wicketkeeper is confident that the Shikhar Dhawan-led Punjab Kings will cruise to their maiden title win this season. Punjab Kings’ best IPL show so far was in 2014 when they entered the final, on the back of 11 wins in 14 matches under George Bailey’s captaincy, but lost the title clash to Kolkata Knight Riders.
Jitesh Sharma. (Punjab Kings Photo)
Jitesh, who was selected as a back-up after Sanju Samson‘s injury in India’s squad for the T20I series vs Sri Lanka, spoke to TimesofIndia.com in an exclusive interview about Punjab Kings’ title chances, meeting MS Dhoni, sharing the dressing room with Hardik Pandya and coach Rahul Dravid, a surprise dinner call from Anil Kumble and much more…
How would you rate Punjab’s title chances this time? And your take on captain Shikhar Dhawan…
Shikhar Dhawan is a great leader, and he leads from the front. He has played a lot of cricket and has vast experience. He is a bold and fearless cricketer. He is going to lead the Punjab Kings in the same way this season. The tournament is about to begin and we are 100 percent confident of winning the title.
When the tournament starts, we will get to know about the combinations. We are ready, we are confident, the preparations are done, and we all want to go out to the middle and express ourselves. We have the belief that we will go and win the title this year.
What was the initial team meeting this year like? Were there any specific interactions that stood out?
Punjab Kings are like a family. Last season, we didn’t qualify (for knockouts) but still the seniors, support staff, coaches and management were so positive and they continued to bolster our confidence. They asked us to look forward and look for good things to come.
The best part about this team and franchise is that it is full of positive energy. When I joined the camp, I met the coaches and players. They all were confident that we would qualify this year. That was a motivational start ahead of the tournament. This kind of atmosphere pushes me harder and motivates me. When I met Shikhar bhai for the first time, he said ‘tu bindaas rehna, tu mast hoke khelna, mai tere saath khada hun. Bass tu jaake confident hoke khelna. Bass positive rehna (Be relaxed, play confidently, I am there for you. Be positive).
Shikhar Dhawan (Image credit: BCCI/IPL)
Star wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow will not be part of the team this season. Did you take any tips from him earlier?
Last year Jonny and I worked a lot on my keeping. I got the opportunity to spend a lot of time with him. He gave me a lot of tips. The tips on keeping, mental aspect of the game, how to be aware during a game, the movement while keeping during a match, what the basic rules of wicket-keeping are. I learned a lot from him last season.
It is really unfortunate that he is not in the team this year. He is someone who can make a difference in the team as a batsman, keeper, and as a person as well. He has an abundance of experience. He can see and visualise the game in a way most cricketers can’t. We are going to miss Bairstow.
As a wicketkeeper-batsman who inspires you the most and why?
I have admired Adam Gilchrist since my childhood. He is my inspiration. The way he used to play, the way he used to keep, the way he showed his energy on the field, and the way he used to lift his team was just tremendous to watch. I never saw any dull moments when he was on the field.
I admire Mahi bhai as well. It was a dream come true when I met him last season. I spoke to him regarding my batting and my wicketkeeping. And the way he answered my questions, all my confusion went away in seconds. He was so clear about everything. I met him in my debut game which was against Chennai Super Kings. He told me to do whatever I know but I must be specific, work on my quality and keep everything simple.
Image credit: BCCI/IPL
After Umesh Yadav and Faiz Fazal, you became the third Vidarbha player to get an India call-up. What was the experience of being in the Indian dressing room like? What tips did you get from your favourite players?
I consider myself lucky that I got a call-up for India. Rahul (Dravid) sir was there. Hardik Pandya and Suryakumar Yadav were there. It was a huge opportunity for me to learn from everyone. I spoke to them and took tips from them. They saw my batting and gave me feedback on my batting. They told me – ‘focus on good quality batting’. They said I can give my team a good start.
After spending two years at MI, you got a debut IPL cap from Punjab Kings. Tell us about that moment?
I am really grateful to Punjab Kings, ex-coach Anil Kumble sir, and all the support staff for giving me the opportunity. They saw my game and picked me for the Punjab Kings team.
I got to know about my debut a day before the match. That night, Anil (Kumble) sir texted and asked me to come for dinner. He said, Jitesh, tomorrow is going to be your day, you will be making your debut. He said your wait is going to end. He said just go out in the middle and express yourself and do what you have been doing and enjoy your game. I was so happy. I was not nervous. The next day, I got my debut cap from Shikhar Dhawan. He will be my captain this season.
You initially wanted to become a footballer. Talk to us about that…
I used to play football in school. My ultimate dream was to join the defence forces. I had never played cricket. My grandfather was in Subhash Chandra Bose’s Army. My dad used to tell me his stories. I was so influenced by my grandfather’s achievements. My father always wanted one of his two sons to join the defence forces. I was very keen to do that and I also used to play football in school. In school, I had to switch to cricket because of the extra marks. In Maharashtra, if you play for the state, you get 4 percent marks. That’s why I started playing cricket and I am here now.