MS Dhoni's wisdom spurs Ishan Kishan

Ishan Kishan reaches out to play through the off side BCCI

The first time that Ishan Kishan came up against MS Dhoni as an opponent, he lasted all of one ball. Dhoni was behind the stumps, and Kishan had tapped the ball to mid-off and hared down for a run, but was caught short at the non-striker's end.

Kishan had walked in with three balls left in Gujarat Lions' chase of 196, and three to get for victory. The situation alone would have been enough to scramble the brains of a then 18-year-old. And then there was the fact that a young wicketkeeper-batsman from Jharkhand was walking out against a state-mate who he had looked up to for most of his life. Dhoni was the man whose footsteps all of Jharkhand wanted to walk in. For a swashbuckler with the bat who kept wicket, and was also looked at as captaincy material enough to lead India in the Under-19 World Cup in 2016, Dhoni was - is - the icon to end all icons.

"When I was playing my first season, he was at my back and he was talking to the bowler about some plan I think," Kishan recalls. "At that time, I was like, 'What must he have said to the bowler! Now maybe the bowler will get me out because Dhoni bhaiyya has said something.' But now it's more like, 'Okay, he is saying something, so I have to be more attentive about what I have to do. I have to be on my toes'."

The footnote to that story is that the next two times Kishan came up against Dhoni, he made 31 off 24 and 40 off 29.

Now 20, Kishan is still some way off from emulating Dhoni, in that he has not cracked the door to national selection yet. But his efficient wicketkeeping and flamboyant batting have brought him to the A team, and he will be part of one of the Indian teams in the upcoming quadrangular series that involves Australia A and South Africa A.

He's also been noticed enough that Vikram Rathour, who was a selector till 2016, told ESPNcricinfo that he foresaw one of Kishan, Rishabh Pant or Sanju Samson - "both are very good players," says Kishan - eventually taking Dhoni's place as the full-time India wicketkeeper across formats. "Eventually Dhoni will retire, maybe after the 2019 World Cup. So that slot will become available," Rathour said. "Pant is doing really well, I thought Sanju Samson looked very promising, and he still is. And there's Ishan Kishan. I think one of those three (will grab Dhoni's spot)."

What Kishan needs, according to his own diagnosis and those close to him, is tuning his mental game better. That he could shrug off the awe of being Dhoni's opponent and do well, points to how things can fall in place if he is in a good mental space. Conversely, if he is up and down, it shows in the results. Kishan sparkled in IPL 2018, but that sparkle was all too brief. A good score would invariably be followed by a single-digit outing, and while some of that is down to the nature of the T20 game, Kishan himself feels that he needed to do more, having been in good form.

"Not fully satisfied because I missed a lot of opportunities where I could have scored good runs for my team, and made the team win," he says. "In cricket, you have to be mentally very strong and if you feel under pressure you can sometimes change your game also. That's not good for the team, or for the player. That's what happened to me, I think."

What senior team-mates in Mumbai Indians' side - Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya and JP Duminy - told him was to practise staying neutral, no matter what his performance was. "I'm a guy who gets happy when I score runs, and when I don't, I am upset," Kishan says. "But they emphasised on being neutral. Because if you are happy in any game, and then you are upset when you don't score, in the next game also you will go with the same state of mind. That does not allow you to play your game. That's the thing they spoke to me about, to stay normal whether I perform or not, and keep practising well.

"I had a chat with Rohit bhai, and he told me the same thing. That whether I get a fifty in the match or zero, I have to be neutral. You shouldn't get too happy when you score runs, and kabhi naraz nahin hona hai [don't get upset] if you don't score runs."

It's not a new trait. Kishan had a terrible run with the bat in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, managing only 73 runs in six innings. There was a failure in the warm-up game against Pakistan and the first two matches yielded only four runs. "How did I deal with it… deal kar kahan paya! [I couldn't really deal with it]," he says. "All that goes through your mind then is that 'you are not even studying. You are not doing anything. All you can do is play cricket well, and you are not doing that too.' Lots of negative thoughts come to your mind at that point."

A phone call with Ishank Jaggi, another state-mate from Jharkhand who has been an elder-brother figure in Kishan's career, helped the teenager come out of that funk. But Kishan knows that it's an area he needs to work on, which is why the constant emphasis on working on 'mental strength'. That work includes giving himself time when he's at the crease because he can destroy attacks once set.

"Once he gets to 20 or so, and passes that struggling phase, he's very dangerous. He can play any shot, anywhere to any bowler," Jaggi said, and Kishan agrees. "I have seen that whenever I give myself some time, and then go and play my game - that helps me a lot. I will do that next season. I won't be just looking for boundaries and sixes, but for singles too - in all formats. Even if it's a T20 game, singles are very important. In one-day matches too, singles are very important and put pressure on the bowlers. Sometimes boundaries don't put as much pressure on a bowler, but taking regular singles irritates them a lot, and they change their lines, which leads to runs."

And for more refined tips on being mentally strong, Kishan can always turn to Dhoni, the master of the art in the modern game. "In the IPL also between matches, I had a conversation with him. My performance was going alternate - like I was scoring a fifty and then not scoring, then again scoring runs and then not scoring. So he told me, 'See this is the thing. When you get happy sometimes after you perform, then you get relaxed in the next match. Then you don't perform and again you get under pressure to perform in the following match. So that's why you have to concentrate on focussing on each game separately. Plan according to the team you are facing, whether you have to pick any bowler to score runs, which bowler is the main one and you can take singles.' He helps a lot whenever I meet him. He talks about everything, even fitness. Obviously, he is pressed for time. But he is so kind that if he can't give me time there, he will tell me to come to his room and ask him whatever I want to."

For all that he has been in the circuit for a while, Kishan is still only 20. There is time yet, to put the many words of wisdom he gets into practice. And to perhaps dream of standing behind the stumps one day where your mere presence gets a teenager run out.