From callow to mellow…

Andhra’s prolific wicketkeeper-batsman Kona Srikar Bharat is going places. By J. R. Shridharan.

There is a visible difference between the Kona Srikar Bharat (Andhra’s prolific wicketkeeper-batsman) of last season and the present. He is a mellowed lad and is making his bat and gloves do all the talking. ‘A better-behaved-boy’ is the new label the precocious talent has acquired this season in the dressing room.

Childish pranks and jibes are a thing of the past and now he behaves more responsibly with the singular motto of putting his team on top. Both temperamentally and technique-wise, Bharat has come a long way thanks to the sane words of head coach Mukund Parmar, psychologist-cum-team mentor Dr. Kinjal Suratwala and manager M. S. Kumar.

Twenty-one-year-old Bharat, who scored 600-odd runs and claimed 30-odd scalps last season, began the current one on a resounding note by cracking a century and ending it (the league phase) with a triple.

He amassed 758 runs and claimed 46 victims and played a pivotal role in Andhra’s qualification to the knockout stage — after six long years. He smacked 38 fours and six sixes and stayed in the middle for more than 500 minutes to script the sensational triple hundred. “In fact with his 308 (a 311-ball effort) against Goa at Ongole he has announced his arrival on the big stage. He has been picked by Delhi Daredevils for the coming IPL,” says former India stumper and Andhra Cricket Association Director (Cricketing Operations) M. S. K. Prasad.

Bharat’s unbridled approach, which was in full view in his debut match in 2012, looks tempered now and he is a balanced man well in control of his emotions.

He caused several raised eyebrows with his antics against the mercurial former India speedster Sreesanth in his maiden match against Kerala at Kadapa for which he even earned the wrath of the match referee.

“The chirpy and talkative Bharat was in his teens and didn’t know what to do in the presence of the India international. By nature he plays the Aussie brand of aggressive cricket. A good amount of mentoring has brought a perceivable change in him,” says NCA Level III coach J. Krishna Rao, who spotted Bharat’s raw talent in Visakhapatnam.

Bharat says he toiled hard to master the backfoot strokes this season and his hard work has paid dividends as he scored an unbeaten 130 against Hyderabad and 308 against Goa.

“I am at home facing the pacers. I like to dominate them on the front foot. But this season I concentrated on the pull and cut strokes. I grew in confidence while playing the horizontal bat strokes to perfection,” says the talented opener, who plays for Young Star Cricket Club in Chennai.

Bharat, a fit athlete by nature, says that the Chennai senior division league matches, which get over in three days, throw several challenges to the players. “The players have to be on their toes as the match gets over in just three days. One can learn the art of tackling spin well as many strips are spinner-friendly.”

Coaches feel that Bharat’s ability to play the ball late makes him a prolific batsman and his devil-may-care attitude sets him apart. “This season he started playing close to the body unlike the temptation for playing away (from the body) last season,” says coach Rao.

Prasad says Bharat is developing into a genuine all-rounder like the Indian ODI skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni. “Unlike Dhoni, who is a hard hitter of the leather, Bharat is a good timer of the ball with an aggressive streak more like Virender Sehwag. He is suitable for all formats of the game and giving him the edge is his quality keeping abilities.”

Bharat was spotted when he was all of nine and was playing a league match in Vizag, “He was actually a middle-order batsman. When a selector asked him to open in a junior grade match, Bharat grabbed the opportunity and slammed a century before lunch. Thus he graduated to an opener,” recollects Krishna Rao.

Interestingly, wicketkeeping also came accidentally to Bharat, who, when no one was around to keep wickets during a practice session, padded up for the glove work under the instructions of Rao.

Coaches are of the opinion that his role as wicketkeeper has helped him shape into a better batsman as he has the privilege of watching the ball at close quarters. “A wicketkeeper watches the ball all day. He learns to judge the ball better and can read the movement of the leather well. Rahul Dravid began to shine as a batsman only after his serious involvement with ’keeping,” opines Rao.

Bharat, who spends a considerable amount of time honing his ’keeping skills, says he has realised the importance of keeping the head still and rising on the hips to have a better vision of the ball. “Now I am also watching the ball till the end.”

The comparisons with Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist of Australia have had no impact on young Bharat for until now he has never had an idol or a hero. “I look at myself everyday to shape into a better cricketer and a good human being,” Bharat concludes.