Rajat Bhatia posted his highest individual score in first-class cricket – an unbeaten 212 – in a Plate Group Ranji Trophy contest in December, 2018, playing for Uttarakhand as a professional. He would play one more first-class match in his career, and retire from all forms of cricket in July, 2020, marking an end to an adventurous journey that saw him win the Ranji Trophy with Delhi and the Indian Premier League with Kolkata Knight Riders.
Twelve years prior to his unbeaten 212, Bhatia scored 185 in the final game of the 2005-06 season of the Ranji Trophy. The circumstances in which those runs were scored were vastly different from 2018: Bhatia was struggling to make a mark with bat and ball, and Delhi had been enduring a difficult season. He had scored 118 runs in eight innings and taken a solitary wicket in seven bowling innings before Delhi’s final assignment, an away game against Tamil Nadu.
Bhatia knew he may not make it to the side on the basis of his performances. He was also motivated to do well against a side he had played for before. What followed was a career-saving performance.
“I started playing Ranji Trophy for Tamil Nadu, and I really wanted to do well against Tamil Nadu because when I played for them, because I was an outsider, I was treated [differently]. Whenever there was a choice between a guy who was from Chennai and me, that person used to have an upper hand and I realised I should be performing against them,” Bhatia told Sportstar , reflecting on that innings.
“I still remember that day, early morning I got up, I went to the temple – the Sai Baba temple which was very close to the hotel. I started praying, I said ‘this can be my last game so it’s all up to you’, and then I left everything [to Him]. I got my batting when we were in a very bad position (117 for 4, 364 runs behind in the first innings), and the wicket was turning. Mithun Manhas was batting. I was in my own zone, I never spoke to him too much but I was just playing my own game. Somehow I reached 50, then 100, then 150, I scored 185 and it stayed as my highest total for many years till I broke it in the second-last game of my career when I played for Uttarakhand. That game was important for me because I really wanted to perform, and prove a point against Tamil Nadu and for Delhi that I deserved to continue playing Ranji Trophy for many years,” he said.
Ranji Trophy triumph
That was the turning point as Bhatia enjoyed two productive seasons for Delhi in 2006-07 and ’07-08, the second one culminating in a title triumph. Runs flowed: he scored 512 runs at an average of 64 in ’06-07, and 525 runs at 47.72 in ’07-08, including a century in the final.
“I always said that I feel sorry about Delhi’s cricket that there’s no criterion: how are you going to play for Delhi? It is not that if you perform in the leagues and districts sides you’re going to get into the team; it’s like this, if you have a good name and you’re playing a useful role in club cricket games, then only seniors or selectors who know you will pick you.”
“That season (2007-08), the best part was that Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were available for most of the games. Gambhir led the side dutifully, he wanted to be a leader; he wanted to be a captain for Delhi for a long period. He knew if we have to win the Ranji Trophy, it’s going to be a game changer for everyone who’s playing for the Delhi side. The second thing was that Ishant Sharma, who was a good fast bowler, Pradeep Sangwan, Parwinder Awana, they were getting into this Ranji side. Then, we were very lucky; we had a very good combination, our batting order was fixed, so we knew if everybody was going to play their role really well, our team was going to do well,” he said.
With Delhi reduced to 36 for 4 in the first innings of the final, however, the title was slipping away from Delhi’s grasp. Uttar Pradesh had 342 on the board and seamer Praveen Kumar was seemingly unplayable.
“I came out to bat, the wicket was looking very good but Praveen Kumar was in great form. He was making the ball swing, and most of our guys were struggling to play him, so I had a chat with Aakash Chopra, and Chopra said when he was feeling the ball it was very difficult to play it because he didn’t know where he was keeping the shiny side of the ball, the ball was coming in very late. So I told Aakash, ‘Let’s try something out of the box, if I’m standing at the non-strikers’ end, I’ll try to let you know which side he’s going to swing the ball,’ and I decided to watch him at least for a couple of deliveries,” Bhatia recalled.
“I started telling Aakash which side he’s going to move the ball, and it really helped him, and then he started helping me. So we somehow managed to escape from his spell: the first four overs he bowled he took four wickets, and the next four overs somehow we managed to negotiate him and his eight-over spell finished. He was tired, and after that, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Sudeep Tyagi, Piyush Chawla and a left-arm spinner (Praveen Gupta) started bowling, and we started attacking those guys.
Bhatia and Chopra added 196 runs for the fifth wicket. There ensued a collapse after the second new ball was taken in the 80th over and Delhi couldn’t take the first-innings lead. Bhatia remained unbeaten on 139. Pradeep Sangwan took the cue and scythed through the UP line-up, leaving Gautam Gambhir and Shikhar Dhawan to chase down 230 confidently.
India ‘A’ call-up
Bhatia’s performances were recognised in the form of an India ‘A’ call-up for a tour of Israel to promote cricket in that country. He wasn’t under any illusion, though, that this could be a stepping stone to a potential India selection. Despite his good performances, he was never called up for the side again.
“In those days, Emerging Trophy used to happen in Australia; there were two teams, one was going to Australia and the other promotional. It was just a promotional team which played Israel. To promote cricket in Israel, they named that tour. We played on Astroturf, we met one of the selectors, one of the selectors of the national side, he became our coach and we toured Israel for two-three games, including one Twenty20 game, or something like that.
“But that was just eyewash, it was just to show these guys also played for India ‘A’.”
A number of cricketers from Delhi in that era went on to play for India, including Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Aakash Chopra, Virat Kohli, Ashish Nehra and Ishant Sharma. What made Delhi produce so many India players?
“The best part about it, those who played for the country, is that I don’t think there’s any cricketer [from Delhi] who has played for the country and not performed,” points out Bhatia.
The players had sheer quality that shone through. But Bhatia says there were many other cricketers who performed well for Delhi but weren’t nurtured well by the DDCA. “We are looking at the guys who are getting picked, but we are not looking at the guys who are not getting picked. There are many players who will perform for Delhi but won’t be picked. So I always feel we need a kind of association where they are going to take care of all the guys, which doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen. We always see that the same kinds of people are running the DDCA, same kind of administration, same kind of problem, most of the cricketers who are very old are fed up and they don’t want to be a part of the DDCA.
“I always said that I feel sorry about Delhi’s cricket that there’s no criterion: how are you going to play for Delhi? It is not that if you perform in the leagues and districts sides you’re going to get into the team; it’s like this, if you have a good name and you’re playing a useful role in club cricket games, then only seniors or selectors who know you will pick you. Otherwise, even if you’re a good cricketer and nobody knows you, then you’re not going to get picked. So I feel that there are a lot of guys who are left behind because of this administration.”
‘Real test of your skills’
Bhatia went on to play for Delhi until 2015, when he was dropped. But before that, he tasted IPL glory in 2012 with the Knight Riders, serving as a wily bowler.
In T20s, he knew if he didn’t provide pace to the batsmen to hit the ball some would struggle to hit boundaries, and decided to keep them guessing with his variations, including his cutters.
In 2011, when the Knight Riders finished third, he ensured an economy rate of 6.56, taking eight wickets at an average of 26.25. In the title-winning season, he took 13 wickets in 16 innings at an average of 29.92 and an economy rate of 7.31.
Yet, he is better known as a domestic stalwart for Delhi, a reliable middle-order batsman and a bowling workhorse, a role vastly different from his early days when he aimed to be an out and out fast bowler. His first-class figures bear out his effectiveness with both bat and ball: 6,482 runs in 157 innings, at 49.10, and 137 wickets at 27.97.
Cricket is very different today from the time Bhatia started his first-class career, in 1999-00. There is more money to be made through the game, and there is IPL to consider.
Bhatia, who is now gearing up for a post-retirement career in biomechanics, has two broad pieces of advice to any aspiring cricketer: “My advice is: one, to take care of your health, and the second, to think about domestic cricket also. Because Test cricket is Test cricket, it is the real test of a real good cricketer, so you should not be ignoring that. If you’re a good cricketer, you’re definitely going to perform, and if you’re going to perform in days’ cricket, then only you will be a good cricketer. IPL is something that’s going to come into the pocket. So don’t run for fame. Take care of these two things, definitely, everything will fall in place.”
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