Bhargav Bhatt's meteoric rise
It's the morning after Baroda have stunned Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy semi-final in one-and-a-half days, but Bhargav Bhatt's eight wickets in the game haven't earned him a day's rest. He is playing a one-day match in the local league at the Maharaja Sayajirao University ground in Vadodara, where large trees jostle for space in front of the Department of Architecture building. Bhatt's side is fielding, and he has been taken for a few runs. As he saunters back into the shade during the innings break, he looks like anything but the highest wicket-taker in this season's Ranji Trophy Super League.
The 20-year old left-arm spinner Bhatt is quite tall, and walks with a slightly gawky slouch. He has an air of confidence and says he always thought Baroda were capable of getting to the Ranji finals despite the fact the team had an average age of 23, and was being led by a 23-year old captain. "We didn't think we would make the final but we dreamed about playing in it," Bhatt said in his Gujarati-accented Hindi. "It's not like we were not capable."
He was not surprised by his own performance in his first full season: 40 wickets in eight games at a strike rate below 40. "I got into my rhythm after I picked up ten wickets in the second game [against Haryana] and the confidence automatically came that I could do it at this level." That is remarkable self-belief from someone who, until three years ago, was not even a regular member of the Baroda Under-19 side. Even more noteworthy considering that, until the tenth standard, Bhatt was playing tennis-ball cricket, like millions of other kids in India, because he wanted to "have fun".
"I used to play in the local grounds. The main practice ground is far from my house, so there was an issue with reaching there. Then at school I was told they had a team, and that they would show me how to go about becoming a cricketer. So, I started to play inter-school cricket." There is a saying in Gujarati, jagya tya thi savaar (Morning is whenever you wake up). Bhatt's cricketing sun had slowly begun to rise. "I used to attend morning classes, then go for practice, then to school in the afternoon. After that my school permitted me to practice again from 2:30pm till 6pm."
Left-arm spin came naturally to him. "Everyone used to encourage me to bowl it as they thought I was good at it. I started with a very small club; they had some lights, and I used to go there at night, as well, to practice bowling. I couldn't sleep till I had bowled my heart out. I don't know when I have taken an off day in the last three or four years. If there is an off in the Baroda Cricket Association (BCA) schedule, I go to my club, and vice-versa."
The hunger has been intense, and the rise equally dramatic. "I have always had this goal, be it a club game or a Ranji game, to take the highest number of wickets in the match. Whether I get them or not, is another matter. But my endeavour is always that. For the BCA Under-19 selection trials, I was the highest wicket-taker. I approached Under-22 cricket this year with the objective of getting into the Ranji side. I played two Under-22 games, did well, and got the Ranji call-up."
Cricket has meant his studies have suffered, and he has still to clear his first-year commerce exams, but there was never pressure from his family to focus on studies. "My dad is a huge cricket fan, and he longed to play, but could not because of his financial position. He used to come to the Moti Bagh Stadium to watch the games, and used to think that my boy will play cricket one day."
Bhatt only learned of his father's ambitions recently. "I had come back from playing some Under-22 matches when I got my Ranji kit, and I showed it to my parents. My mom was surprised I had got a new kit so soon after I had got the Under-22 kit. My dad had tears in his eyes, and then he told me about his dream of playing. That's why there has been no pressure to only study. They just want me to do something which I love, but do it so well that I feel I have achieved something in my life. If my parents are supporting me so much, I just want to continue the hard work."
The work has paid off. The Baroda coach Mukesh Narula says Bhatt has grown as a bowler over the last season. "The improvements have been significant, especially since last year," Narula said. "He had a problem with loading his deliveries, and hence the action was not going through properly. When the load became alright, the action became smoother. He holds the ball close to the chin now, the back of the palm faces mid-off and the head is still, which is most important. For a month, we worked only on getting the hand position right for the release. We practised it without a ball, just making the correct motions. Then when he bowled in the nets, he could see the improvement for himself."
Bhatt can't seem to find the right word to describe what his coach tells him to bowl. "Sir always tells me to keep repeating whatever I'm doing and make it my own."
"Stock ball, he doesn't know that word properly yet," Narula interjects. "Yes, the stock ball," Bhatt remembers. Narula says he is working on that delivery, so crucial for a spinner. "He's got strong shoulders. Over after over, he has learnt to hit the right length. But the moment he sees a flat wicket, he looks to flight the ball." Narula says Bhatt is still impressionable and needs to develop his own style. "He'll see Sunil Joshi [the Karnataka left-arm spinner], and he'll start to flight the ball, then he'll watch Swapnil Singh [Bhatt's Baroda team-mate who also bowls left-arm spin], and he'll go round-arm. And the moment he does that, he loses his rhythm. For three days, I told him to bowl exactly the same ball. Just try to hit the turf, that's it. Now he understands what his stock ball should be."
Bhatt has worked out what clicks for him. "I realised one doesn't need to follow others. I can't dip the ball that much, but I can get it to hit and deviate off the pitch."
This season, he has been exposed to different situations with every match, and the learning continues daily. He has even had to open the bowling, in Karnataka's second innings in the semi-finals. Narula points out the enormity of the situation. "Handholding is the key. He is only 20 and leading the attack, it requires a lot of handholding. It's huge for him, and for us."
Bhatt's success means a lot to his extended family too, who are farmers in a village 18km from Baroda. "They just want me to do well, and yes, they want to watch me on television." With so much happening so early for Bhatt, one could forgive him for being overawed by the prospect of playing in the final. But he is focused on winning. "We just want to win the final. This is my first year, and in that season, becoming the champions will be huge. I don't want to let go of this chance."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo