Tough road to the top for workhorse Bhatia
Browsing through the scoresheets of Delhi's Ranji matches, it's hard not to be blinded by names such as Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, and more recently, Unmukt Chand. Their numbers do not matter; it's the familiarity factor. But look beyond the stars and more often than not, there would be a workhorse like a Mithun Manhas or a Rajat Bhatia carrying the team on his shoulders.
This season, as Delhi scrap to get out of mid-table mediocrity, Bhatia continues to make vital contributions. In the previous game, Delhi's first win of the season, Bhatia claimed a four-for to help the team secure the lead, and then hit an unbeaten half-century to help them post a total beyond Haryana's reach. In the ongoing match, against Odisha, Bhatia came in with Delhi on unsteady ground, the star-studded top order having failed, and proceeded to hit an unbeaten 158 to take the team well beyond 400. If the road is a bit rocky, Bhatia does not seem one to shy away from the challenge. That has always been the case with him.
He played his first bit of serious cricket for Modern School, Barakhamba Road, Delhi, as a teenage fast bowler who had modeled himself on Waqar Younis, complete with the ability to reverse. The mutations during the evolution of a player are sometimes hard to fathom, but like in life sciences, they are, more often than not, a response to extrinsic circumstances. In Bhatia's case, it was a case of one thing leading to the other, and he ultimately fashioned himself into an astute medium-pace bowling allrounder with a batting average almost touching the 50-mark and more than 100 wickets to his name in the glamourless world of first-class cricket.
It all began when he was selected for the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai while in school and spent six months - April to September - there after his senior secondary examinations, but discovered he had been bowling with a stress fracture in his back and had to cut down on his pace. For someone who didn't think much about batting in those years, Bhatia had no option but to spend a lot of time facing young fast bowlers from around the world in the nets, an aspect of his game he discovered he was good at.
While playing for the MRF team during that stay, in one game, Bhatia says, "They sent me at No. 10 and I had a strong partnership with WV Raman. He scored a century, I scored 60-odd,"
That innings was enough to impress the team, who wanted him to stay back and play for them as an allrounder. But for Bhatia "that was a tricky period, as I had to also think about college, because taking long time-off from college to play cricket wasn't easy either".
Bhatia's family, based in Roopnagar in central Delhi, had financial constraints at this point, after a business they had invested on was struggling. "So it was clear," he says, "that there wouldn't be much support, and I would have to do it by myself."
TA Sekar, the coach at MRF Pace Foundation, facilitated Bhatia's move to Chennai, getting him admitted to Vivekananda College and within two years, he moved through the ranks to make it to the Tamil Nadu Ranji team. Playing his first match against Orissa in 1999/2000 season, he scored 72 from No. 10 and was immediately pushed up to open in the second innings, where he scored another half-century. The next season, he was included for five matches, but the year after that, he was dropped as the experienced Robin Singh walked back into the Tamil Nadu team as the main allrounder.
"I was nearing four years in Chennai at that point and was done with college. Since the professional fees playing cricket in Chennai was better, I thought about staying on. But I wasn't getting a job there."
It was in this period that he first met Vijay Dahiya during a Moindullah Trophy in Goa, and he convinced him to play for the Indian Airlines team and later, take up a job with the company's Delhi office. But according to Bhatia, he was shocked to hear from the Tamil Nadu administration that someone holding a job outside the state was ineligible to play for the state Ranji team.
"If Nasser Hussain wanted to play in the Chennai leagues, he was eligible because he was born in Chennai, but I wasn't," Bhatia says. "I had left my hometown to play league cricket, Under-19 cricket, Ranji, performed well in all levels, and now they didn't support me just because my job was outside the state. I was very disappointed."
Bhatia had no option but to head back home to Delhi where he was welcomed into the team by Dahiya and Bishan Bedi, the then coach. However, another administrative quirk hit Bhatia hard as he had to go through a cooling off period since he had not played in Delhi.
"I was hit from both sides. It was like a two-year ban for me," he says. "One year, I didn't get a game in Tamil Nadu and second year Delhi didn't allow me to play. In nine matches for Tamil Nadu, I had three half-centuries and one hundred, plus 10 wickets. That went to waste and I had to start in Delhi two years later from zero again."
With no league cricket to play in Chennai either, Bhatia started going to England during the summers, a move that he says helped him spruce up his fitness levels and his training methods. The three-four years that it took him to restart his career meant he was a late bloomer in the Delhi side. But by the 2007-08 season, he had established himself as a central part of the squad with 26 wickets and 525 runs, including an unbeaten century in Delhi's win in the final.
Since then, he has produced special performances against his former Ranji team. In six matches against Tamil Nadu, Bhatia has scored 470 runs, including two centuries, at an average of 117.50. Asked if it was due to some extra motivation, Bhatia shrugs it off as just a coincidence.
When asked if he doesn't fancy moving up the Delhi order, Bhatia says, "I don't have any problems in batting anywhere. I have batted from one to eight for Delhi, but they have always believed that I am good in the middle order.
"I used to open with Gautam, then Dhawan came, then Virat came. Then if some new batsman comes in, it has to be between me and Mithun [to make space], so I move down lower."
It's this dedication to the team that Delhi coach Sanjeev Sharma says has made Bhatia always one of the leaders in a close core-group. Bhatia, in turn, says the bigger names have always been supportive of him. "Viru and Gautam have always had confidence in me. I am not sure if any other captain would have put so much trust in my bowling."
Bhatia, at 34, continues to put in solid performances across formats, which, he feels, should have at least earned him visibility at the India A level. "Now there are so many A matches and so many players featuring in them, sometimes you don't even know which state they represent. Then the age factor comes to the fore.
"So I have stopped worrying about things that are not in my hands. I don't hold any grudges and I don't have any regrets. I try to do well for Delhi."
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo