I moulded myself for the IPL - Bhatia
Rajat Bhatia has bowled almost 6000 deliveries in first-class cricket, running in relentlessly under the hot Delhi sun and getting enough out of the unyielding Feroz Shah Kotla surface to keep his average below 30. He then found the energy and the patience to make almost 4000 first-class runs - most of them when his side really needed them - at an average in the high-forties. Yet he was hardly known outside India's domestic circuit for almost a decade after making his debut.
And then the IPL happened. Four overs a game of accurate slow-medium bowling did what nine years of steady toil could not. Suddenly, Bhatia was being acknowledged as a wily operator who confounded batsmen with variation and control over a range of slower ones, legcutters and offcutters, all delivered with the same earnest and honest expression.
He displays the same honesty when he acknowledges that his ego as a bowler is about as snarling as his pace is. Which is not much. "I know my limitations. I had started as a bowler at the MRF Pace Foundation. I was told I could never become a pace bowler," he says, his spectacles making him look like a serious professor. "I have no issues with the wicketkeeper standing up to me. Some bowlers think that the 'keeper should be standing back to them. In fact, now I am more comfortable with the 'keeper standing up."
It is not the lack of pace but Bhatia's remarkable command over his repertoire that troubles batsmen. In IPL 2009, Deccan Chargers needed 25 of 18 balls with six wickets remaining and Andrew Symonds going after everything. Bhatia trotted in nervelessly and fooled Symonds with a slower one. An offcutter here and a legcutter there followed. Deccan collapsed to lose by 12 runs.
Bhatia credits the hard hours put in bowling on featherbeds for his company, Air India, for the control that he now possesses. "We play a lot on small grounds, and on wickets that are too placid. The batsmen just have to plonk the front foot out and run.
"When I started playing in the IPL, I saw that batsmen were practising using the bowling machine. I realised that if I bowled at the same pace, then it would be easy for batsmen to hit me. I have always bowled the slower one but over time I have developed it. I have moulded myself for the IPL."
We are sitting in the lobby of the Kolkata Knight Riders team hotel in Hyderabad where they are playing in the Champions League Twenty20. Yusuf Pathan walks by, with a gentle nod and a handshake with Bhatia. Quite clearly, the IPL means a lot to Bhatia seeing the belated recognition that he has received because of it. He even compares it to playing for India.
"The IPL as a platform is as big and as full of pressure as when you are playing for the country. Your franchise does so much for you; all the facilities, the media attention. You play with people who are the stars of their countries. Performing is down to absorbing the pressure. Like in our match against Auckland, we had to be consistent enough to defend 122. You have to show to your franchise that you are doing your role well."
Despite all the glitter and glory that the IPL has given him, however, Bhatia says that his biggest achievement will remain winning the Ranji Trophy in 2007-08 for Delhi. "My feelings on winning the Ranji Trophy were something completely different. Even today when all of us - I, Gautam [Gambhir], our coach Vijay Dahiya - talk about it, I get a tingling feeling. We remember everything about that match. There are sides like Mumbai that win the Ranji Trophy almost every second or third year. We won after a long time and I know the value that it has. Delhi is very important for me as it is my home. If I don't do well for some time, I know that Delhi will support me.
Bhatia knows that the two formats he has excelled in have clashed a lot, and he is clear about which is the more important one. "I believe that first-class cricket is first-class cricket after all. T20 is a big platform but we should not neglect first-class because of it. People's attitudes have changed towards it. Now players look to be fit during the IPL season rather than during the first-class season.
"It is up to the seniors to guide youngsters and ensure they play more first-class cricket. It should not happen that a boy hasn't played first-class and is straightaway playing the IPL. Playing first-class is much more important than playing IPL."
Obviously, Bhatia regrets having never got a chance to play for the country, even when he averaged 48.14 with the bat and 12.47 with the ball, scoring 674 runs and taking 34 wickets in Delhi's triumphant season. He was 28 then, a factor that he believes should not have gone against him.
"I believe that if I had got the chance then I could have done well. But it never came. I was sent with an Emerging Players side on a tour to Israel which had no value. I was never called to the National Cricket Academy for a camp. I was just called for two days as the team was going to Israel. It was an embarrassing feeling and after that I accepted that it was not necessary that every performing player would play for India.
"Rather than looking at your performance, how old you were was being looked at. I think if you are performing consistently at the domestic level then you are ready for the next level."
He must have cringed as he saw a galaxy of Under-19 players break into the national side like a bunch of shooting stars, some of them making precisely that kind of short impact. He says that rampant pushing of inexperienced players into the national side has led to the India cap becoming devalued.
"If you look at U-19 players who are fast-tracked, you will find a few good players but many players' future has been ruined. There are many who got a chance early but no one knows where they are today. This is where the Australian system is different. If you look at their international players' domestic record, it is outstanding. They are so mature when they come in to the Australia side and we will have to learn from them that age does not matter, performance does.
"Everybody is not like Virat Kohli, who has done well at U-19 level and has also settled in to the India side. I think the India cap should not be handed out on the basis of one or two outstanding performances. Sunil Gavaskar has said this and I agree that if you are getting the India cap so easily, then it loses its value."
What Bhatia hasn't lost though is his discipline and commitment despite being totally ignored, despite there being moments when he has questioned himself. "If you have played Ranji Trophy for so long, moments like these happen so many times that you become used to them. Then you learn to sideline them and say, 'its ok, I am enjoying my game, getting a chance is not in my hand'. If something is not in your control and you keep cribbing about it, then it will create problems only for you.
"The first thing about domestic cricket is that you will have to remain self-motivated. The day you stop enjoying the game, your performance will drop. I haven't played for the country but at whatever level you are playing - company, club, state or IPL - you have a role to perform as a professional and you have got to do it."
Still, actually toiling for hours and hours with the knowledge that you have hit a dead-end must seem maddeningly futile. Bhatia shrugs knowingly. "Maybe I have always taken the game with the sense that I can get annoyed with it sometimes, but never go away from it," he says.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo