It was not easy for Madhya Pradesh (MP) when it learnt that two of its red-ball mainstays Avesh Khan and Venkatesh Iyer will not be available for the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals from early June.
The stop-start season made it even worse and coach Chandrakant Pandit had to turn to his second-string players to make up for the absence of the two who were drafted into the national side. Add to that, the injuries to veteran seamer Ishwar Pandey, IPL speedster Kuldeep Sen and young left-armer Arshad Khan. While MP had the cushion of able replacements in its pace-bowling department, Pandit admitted he was in a fix when it came to the crucial number six position that used to be slotted for the all-rounder Venkatesh.
He had a promising replacement in young Akshat Raghuwanshi who had taken Iyer’s position in the league stage and delivered the goods with unflinching character. The 18-year-old had cracked a century on debut against Meghalaya and followed it up with a half-century against Kerala in his second First Class innings.
And so, when the opportunity arose, Pandit backed the young right-hander to play out another substantial knock. Soon enough, Raghuwanshi did repay the coach’s faith with an innings of utmost assurance against Punjab in the quarterfinal at the Alur (3) ground.
Walking in at number six after the fall of skipper Aditya Shrivastava (1) when MP’s first-innings score read 261 for four, Raghuwanshi had no nerves to settle, for the side had by then taken a 42-run lead. A couple of imminent wickets could have put Punjab back on level terms. However, Raghuwanshi joined forces with the senior-pro Rajat Patidar, who was blazing the field with crisp boundaries while moving to 42 off 77 balls.
Raghuwanshi decided to follow suit. “The wicket was turning. There was no point being scared and standing there. Out tho hona hi hai (You are bound to get out anyway). So it was better to score as much as possible,” Raghuwanshi said.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say Raghuwanshi was the man in focus during his stand with Patidar, overshadowing the vice-captain at the non-striker’s end for the next two hours on Day 3. A coalesce of cuts, back-foot punches, field-splitting on-drives, and dead-batting adorned the lush outfield at Alur. Raghuwanshi caught up with Patidar in a hurry and romped to his third-successive Ranji Trophy half-century with two thumping sixes over mid-wicket, off leg-spinner Mayank Markande. However, he could not convert the knock to another ton as he fell for 69 on the stroke of Lunch. The damage was done. Punjab was left gasping by the ambush from the blue.
Patidar was a mere spectator in the partnership of 99 runs off 174 balls where Raghuwanshi led the charge with 69 off 109.
This was, however, not the first time Raghuwanshi stepped up to meet Pandit’s judgment call.
Pandit narrates his first meeting with the young kid from Gwalior with a sense of glee and accomplishment of being proven right. “I had seen him during a U-19 match in Madhya Pradesh. He was 17 years old and it was a practice game. I was umpiring in that match. I had heard about him, that he was a good player, so I wanted to see him too. The first ball struck his pads while I was the umpire,” Pandit said before confirming in one breath. “Mein not out diya, woh out tha. (I called it not out, but it was out).”
“He went on to score 165. And I was impressed instantly, so we discussed with the selection committee, and I told them this was the time to draft him onto the next level. The courage he has shown at this level was exactly what I told in the post-match chat with the team. We have to learn to show the courage of this 18-year-old boy. He was never under pressure,” Pandit remarked.
Raghuwanshi, who began playing cricket at the age of four under the watchful eyes of his first coach - his father - moved into leather-ball cricket at eight. The talent was telling as Raghuwanshi climbed the rungs of age-group cricket quickly - U-14, U-16 and also led the MP Under-19 side during the 2021-22 Vinoo Mankad Trophy where he scored 176 runs in five innings.
The dream remains the same. “Ussi (India and IPL) ka journey hai (smiles). Obviously, India ke liye khelna hai (I want to play for India)."
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