Keeper of faith: From ball boy to India A regular, KS Bharat quietly stakes his claim
Indian Express 8 Oct 2019 08:33 AM
Making seamlessly progression through the age-group levels, Bharat would make his first-class debut for Andhra at 19, and then cement his spot as the first-choice wicketkeeper-batsman for India A tours.
It’s a 14-year-old scene, but Kona Srikar Bharat remembers it vividly. It’s the summer of 2005 when MS Dhoni announced himself on the international stage with a sensational 148 against Pakistan at Visakhapatnam. Bharat, only 11 then, witnessed the carnage from the boundary line as a ball boy. Dhoni’s career-defining knock that afternoon would sow the seeds of admiration in the impressionable youngster.
“Before that match, I had no idea who he (Dhoni) was. I began to follow him since then, and the manner in which he led his team in the 2007 T20 World Cup in South Africa two years later, transformed me into a die-hard Dhoni fan. That triumph inspired me to pursue cricket as a profession,” Bharat explains.
Making seamlessly progression through the age-group levels, Bharat would make his first-class debut for Andhra at 19, and then cement his spot as the first-choice wicketkeeper-batsman for India A tours. In the last 18 months, he has featured against the ‘A’ teams of West Indies, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and England, notching up over 700 runs with three centuries, while plucking 43 catches and effecting six stumpings.
A fortnight ago, Bharat scored a delightful 57-ball 71 on a tricky Vizianagaram pitch against the visiting South Africans in a practice game. He may have missed out on a spot for the three-match Test series against the Proteas, but there are enough indications to suggest that he is in the fray.
What strengthens his case is that two of the men ahead of him are Wriddhiman Saha, at 35, is making a return to the team following a lengthy rehab, and 21-year-old Rishabh Pant, who in recent times has drawn considerable flak for his irresponsible shot selection.
Stellar India A performances
Last month, chief selector MSK Prasad had stated that Saha, Pant and Bharat would be the three wicketkeepers to be considered for Tests.
“Bharat has produced some stellar performances for India A, and in the last three series he has got three centuries and effected 50 dismissals. At the moment, he is very close to selection and along with Pant and Saha are the three wicketkeepers we are looking at in Test cricket” was Prasad’s assessment.
To be earmarked by the chief selector as India’s No.3 wicketkeeper barely six years since his first-class debut is a remarkable feat. What’s even more creditable is that till 19, Bharat, barring a couple of competitive matches, had not played as a ‘keeper. The presence of T. Vamsi Krishna, two years his senior, in all age-group teams meant Bharat would get pigeonholed as a middle-order batsman and a specialist close-in fielder.
That was despite Bharat polishing his wicketkeeping skills since he was 12. However, instead of getting bogged down, he would use this time to improve some of the other facets of his game.
“Barring a couple of games, I have played my age-group cricket from U-13 till the U-19 level as a batsman. Being a close-in fielder helped me improve my reflexes, which helped me as a ‘keeper,” the 25-year-old notes. The Vizag native credits his growth as a wicketkeeper to childhood coach J. Krishna Rao, who spotted him when he was barely 10 at the zonal trials.
“When I first saw him, the way he played fast bowlers who were 3 or 4 years older to him made me realise his potential. What was equally impressive was his fielding. He used to take some amazing catches and I was instantly impressed by his sharp reflexes. By the time he turned 12, I threw the ‘keeping gloves at him and told him that he would play for Andhra one day,” Rao reminisces.
Rao’s modus operandi was to keep Bharat match-ready at all times.
“I was confident that he had the talent to succeed as a wicketkeeper, so, I knew his chance would come,” Rao says. In the end, it’s ironical that Bharat would go on to replace Krishna as Andhra’s wicketkeeper in the 2013 season.
Dhoni and Rao aren’t the only catalysts in Bharat’s cricketing journey. Early in life, it was his father Sreenivas Rao, employed with the naval dockyards, had a crucial role to play.
Much before his stint under Rao, Bharat’s restless nature had Sreenivas worried. As the story goes, 8-year-old Bharat would spend most of his time playing on the terrace of their house.
That prompted Sreenivas to frantically search for a plan to keep his son engaged. As luck would have it, word spread that the local cricket association was looking for ball boys for Ranji Trophy and international matches. Sreenivas immediately got Bharat enrolled. Apart from ball-boy duties, he would also help the local operator at the stadium with the manual scoreboard.
“These activities kept me out of trouble as a child. Watching cricket from close quarters ignited interest in the game. While most kids of my age would spend time watching cricket on television, I got a ringside view of the action,” Bharat explains.
Now that he is being talked about for national selection, Bharat is quick to mention that he shares cordial relations with both Saha and Pant.
Last year, Bharat had a fruitful interaction with the Bengal stumper on the challenges of ‘keeping to spinners like Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on Indian tracks.
Bharat doesn’t hide his aspiration to don the India jersey, but does he consider himself to be a natural successor to Saha?
“Well, I will take that as a huge compliment, because the way I see it, he is the best wicketkeeper in the country at the moment. I’m a more aggressive batsman than Wriddhi bhai but can also play the patient stonewalling type of innings if the situation demands.” “I want to play Test cricket for India,” he says before turning philosophical. “I believe that good things will come to you if you are willing to work hard and wait for your time.”
Bharat has put in the hard yards. He is now willing to wait for his time.