Around three days before this year's IPL auction, Rising Pune Supergiant CEO Raghu Iyer happened to meet Sunandan Lele, veteran cricket journalist and Pune resident. Iyer asked Lele for suggestions on how to make the Pune team more popular. Lele bluntly told him his team was not a Pune team. "No player from Pune, no connect with Pune."
But who are the Pune players, Iyer seemed to suggest, apart from Kedar Jadhav, who already played for Royal Challengers Bangalore? Lele gave him three names. Two days before the auction, trials were arranged at DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai. At the last minute, Rising Pune got a name added to the 351 already on the auction list.
The 351 names came and went. Auctioneer Richard Manley broke for lunch. The teams came back for the second round of the auction, which featured unsold players that franchises showed further interest in, and the players the franchises had asked for after the auction list had been drawn up. At around 2.57pm on February 20, the last but one name in the auction was Rahul Tripathi's. He was 25 years old. He was no freak mystery bowler. In fact, he was no bowler. His batting strike rate for Maharashtra was only 120. He had played only 13 T20 matches for them over four years, the last of them more than a year ago. Nobody knew much about him, and Rising Pune bought him for the base price of a million Indian rupees.
To be fair to Rising Pune, Tripathi was not entirely an unknown for them. They had seen him at the trials last year, where Tripathi had hit a six first ball. He was not picked but he went up to the coach, Stephen Fleming, and asked what more he needed to do. He was advised to hold his shape for longer and also to be clear whenever he decided he was going for the big hit.
"Iyer asked Lele for suggestions to make the Pune team more popular. Lele bluntly told him his team was not a Pune team"
This year, though, it took a friendly nudge for the franchise to arrange another try-out. Lele says it was sheer chance that he met Iyer, that they spoke about what they did, but it was credit to the franchise that they listened to him with an open mind and organised the trials, even if just two days before the auction.
A few days before that, Lele had seen something. Playing for Lele's club Deccan Gymkhana, the oldest club in Pune, Tripathi had hit six sixes in an over in a local tournament. "Not one six was such that you wondered if this will go [over the boundary]," Lele says. That was the first of two occasions when Tripathi achieved the feat.
Tripathi remembers those two overs fondly. The first one was in a semi-final when the opposition introduced Mumbai offspinner Jay Bista to bowl to the left-hand batsman whom Tripathi had just joined in the middle. He had taken only one single when Bista was introduced. A sound plan to bowl an offspinner against a left-hand batsman and a new right-hand batsman.
Except, Tripathi was on strike, and this happened: "This over I thought, let me take him on," he says. "So I tried, and the first one connected. Second ball too - I went to hit, and it came off. I could sense he was under a little bit of pressure. He went for the yorker, and ended up bowling a full toss, which I hit for a six again.
"Now I started thinking. My friend Chetan Kurandale used to say I will have to do something completely different to get a higher chance. Suddenly I felt this could be that something totally different. He tried bowling outside off, and I went after that too. Now I was just telling myself: 'Watch the ball, and hit.' He too was under pressure so he was making mistakes."
This was at the Deccan Gymkhana in the middle of Pune. Soon he repeated the feat at a much bigger ground, in Uruli Kanchan, a village 30km outside Pune. By Tripathi's own admission, the opposition was not that strong, but he took on the bowler - Abhishek - who had gone for just "10-12" runs in two overs.
"I was happy I did it again at a bigger ground," Tripathi says. "It was an offspinner again. I wanted to put their best bowler under pressure and see how he reacts. He just happened to put the first ball in the slot. After the third six, my friends and team-mates started shouting, 'Once again. Let's do it again.'"
At the trials Fleming and the coaching staff saw the improvement from the previous year. There was clarity in Tripathi's head when he wanted to attack. It shows in his strike rate inside the Powerplay, behind only Sunil Narine and Chris Lynn this IPL. Only two batsmen have scored more Powerplay runs than Tripathi, both much slower than him.
Two days before the IPL he went back to Deccan for a long net. He wanted to prepare for situations that the IPL might throw up. He had actually been preparing for years. Using pencil and ruler to hit an eraser away, trying to see, "If I hit it like this, where will it go?" He visualised playing for India. His mother had inscribed his name on the TV cover. He wanted to actually be on that TV one day.
Tripathi had to give up cricket when his army-man father was posted in Kashmir during the highly tense time with Pakistan around the turn of the century. His mother decided that his father was not to live alone, no matter how dangerous it might be for the family. When they went from Jammu to Srinagar for the first time, they did so in a convoy of 60 buses with six gunmen in every bus. The nine-year-old Tripathi had heard of stories of attacks on convoys, and remembers being scared every time they stepped out of the cantonment. Even attacks on the cantonment were not unheard of.
"My friend used to say I will have to do something completely different to get a higher chance. Suddenly I felt this [hitting six sixes in an over] could be that something" Rahul Tripathi
In September 2003, Tripathi's father - himself a cricketer - was posted in Pune. They got to the city in the morning, and around 4pm on the same day, Rahul told his father he wanted to get back to cricket. "He hadn't even see his office yet," Tripathi recalls, "and he said, 'Let's go.'" They knew nobody in Pune. They asked for directions to the Nehru Stadium. They found out the stadium was closed for two months: Australia and New Zealand were due to play an ODI there in November. As they were walking back with long faces, somebody told them of Deccan Gymkhana.
Tripathi senior, with his 12-year-old, in the heat of the afternoon, when Pune loves a siesta, made their way to Deccan, where they were told new admissions were only taken in April. It took some convincing from the father for the coaches there to give him a shot. "If he is good, only then will we take him."
"First day they took me to a catches drill with a big group," Tripathi says. "I didn't drop one catch. Then they said, 'Okay, we will make a special allowance for him.'"
Kedar Joglekar and Hemant Athalye - Jadhav's first coach - were his coaches there. Tripathi remained loyal to his club. His cricket kept improving even as he kept doing well at his studies too. Every year he would ask his father for another year of cricket before he made a switch to another career, and every year his father would relent, on the condition that he continued to study well.
Tripathi under a helmet looks menacing. You don't really see his face. It's his arms that stand out, with his rolled-up sleeves hugging his biceps. You see a moustache under the shiny helmet. He is often seen charging the fast bowlers. The eyes are covered by the shadow of the peak of the helmet, and the chinstrap covers his lower jaw. Photographers don't usually focus on his face when he is fielding. His profile photo on ESPNcricinfo is of him in a helmet.
Remove the helmet, get him to talk, and he is so polite and genial, you wonder how he has survived in Pune, a city whose residents are famous for often flirting with the line between curtness and rudeness. He is just star-struck in the IPL team. After a practice match in the lead-up to this IPL, Steven Smith, his captain, told Tripathi, "You're doing well, lad."
"Man, I had only seen him play Test cricket before," Tripathi says. "On TV. Now he was telling me I was doing well."
Once, MS Dhoni asked him how come, having been born in Ranchi, he ended up in different places. And, he says, he said his mother was from Ranchi, and that he used to stand outside Dhoni's house as a fan.
At his first net at Rising Pune, Tripathi was paired with Dhoni, who just told him, "We will take two rounds each."
"The next five-six balls, I couldn't even face properly," he says. "This was MS Dhoni standing at the opposite end, watching me bat and waiting for his turn. M. S. Dhoni."
Now Dhoni was never one to fawn, nor is he one to register or encourage fawning. He talks only when needed, he trains only when needed. On April 10, Dhoni decided to train. He also decided to talk. On the way to Gahunje, where the Pune stadium is, he gestured Tripathi to come to him. "I went running. Into the bus."
"Every year Tripathi would ask his father for another year of cricket before he made a switch to another career, and every year his father would relent, on the condition that he continued to study well too"
"Don't think it is a big game tomorrow, don't take any pressure. Look at it as an opportunity to express yourself," Dhoni told Tripathi, who had been told he was making his debut against Delhi Daredevils.
After one match at No. 4, Tripathi was moved up to open the innings because he was hitting the pace bowlers well. He might just share more than Ranchi with Dhoni. You talk to Tripathi about how he goes about hitting bowlers and you see a slight similarity. Dhoni didn't become the finisher he became through extraordinary shots. Instead, he relied more on bowlers' mistakes. He just knew that if you take games deep, the bowlers are bound to feel the pressure and make errors. And it rarely stops at one error.
You go back to Tripathi's six sixes against Bista, or the ones at Uruli Kanchan, or the way he charges at the fastest bowlers in the world, and that error from the under-pressure bowler is the common link. In this IPL, nobody has scored as many runs charging down to the quicks as Tripathi has: 56 in 21 balls. There is high skill and precision required for that shot - time the charge, time the ball, place it - but the thought process behind it is important.
Tripathi's are not reckless charges. "Fast bowlers try to hit those hard lengths," he says. "You have to counter that and disturb that length. If you step out and hit them, they are taken aback. 'Whoa, that was a good ball, that didn't deserve to be hit.' They start thinking too much, and then they give you loose balls."
It is impossible not to premeditate that move. You can't see the flight of the ball at 140kph and then decide you are going to charge the bowler. Tripathi acknowledges that bit of premeditation, but he also says it is all instinct. Something tells him the next ball is going to be on a length, and he jumps out the moment the bowler enters his delivery stride. That something could be, for example, how he had hit a short ball from Nathan Coulter-Nile and was prepared for a length-ball response and left the crease and dropped a length ball over cover for six.
This was when he scored 93 in a chase of 156, a chase in which the next highest score was 14. In the process he took 29 runs from ten Kuldeep Yadav deliveries after Dhoni and Manoj Tiwary had struggled to pick his wrong'un over two matches. "I sat down with the video analyst and looked hard for any tics when he bowls the googly," Tripathi says. "He is different, his googly is tougher to pick than others. The change is very slight. Once I did start picking it - one clue can be his ring finger and little finger going up as he releases - it became easier. You look for his fingers and also the seam on the legbreak comes out in a certain way. So if it is not a legbreak, you have your guard up."
Still, he played out the first two balls from Kuldeep with respect, and once he was confident, he hit three successive sixes, in the 13th over, mind, and not when the game was practically over.
Then we talk about Rashid Khan's wrong'uns. And suddenly, it is almost like the helmet is taken off and the good student is back. There is perhaps realisation that he might come off sounding a little arrogant talking about charging quicks and picking wrong'uns. "I am just happy to compete with these world-class bowlers," he says. "For me it is just a dream experience."
A dream he dreamt in his classrooms, in the snow of Srinagar, outside Dhoni's house in Ranchi. A dream that materialised through 12 years of non-stop training at Deccan Gymkhana.