About a year ago, Robin Bist, currently the highest run-maker this Ranji season, was cooling down after his jog in Central Park in Jaipur. A middle- aged gentleman who Bist had got acquainted with in the park over the previous months, checked on Bist's welfare. "I told him I was very troubled inside," Bist said. "Despite getting the runs consistently I was still not secure about my berth in the Rajasthan squad." The elderly gent had seen Bist's pictures in newspapers and that was how he had broken the ice the first time.
Like a sage, the stranger would go on to offer sound advice to Bist. "When people start talking behind you and are jealous of you, then you should realise you are progressing. You just need to carry on the good work."
At the time Bist just smiled and heard the words casually. But he was curious about this old man, who would always wear a faded T-shirt and baggy shorts. He asked one of the fellow walkers, and was told the stranger, despite his appearances, was actually a very successful businessman in Jaipur.
The wise man's words came handy when after the 2011 Irani Trophy, where Bist was Rajasthan's highest scorer in the match (93 in the first innings), influential voices made him feel insecure about his place in the squad. The old doubts resurfaced in the youngster and he would call up his coach Rakesh Rai to confide. Already he was under duress with the team management preferring the more aggressive Ashok Menaria at No.4, Bist's preferred position, he was told he would have to bat at No.6. Bist told his captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar that the challenge was daunting.
"It was a challenge because I had never played at No.6." He was out 47 in his first outing in the lower order against Karnataka. Kanitkar scolded Bist as to why he had not remained unbeaten. Bist explained that he was still coming to grips with the new position. "He told me that I was the only batsman middling the ball and timing it well and it would be helpful for both me and the team for me to remain unbeaten," Bist said.
He came back unbeaten on 82 against Mumbai at the Brabourne stadium. "That was the turning point of the season for me. To score a patient 82 against the domestic dadas (strongmen) bolstered my self-belief further." Bist would go on to score three consecutive centuries in the next three matches. So far he has four in ten matches, the most by any batsman this year.
After he scored his third century of the season, against Punjab, Bist received a call from one of his friends, who congratulated him for becoming the highest run-maker so far in the season. Bist could not believe it. But he admits now "it went to my head." He failed in both innings in the next match against Saurashtra. Once again he paid a visit to Kanitkar. "He told me I had started to think too much about the runs and I had been distracted and it was affecting my batting," Bist said. "He asked me to go back to the old ways of getting a steady start."
Bist is a talented plodder. He takes his time and is happy to play the odd boundary. But he has the patience to anchor a partnership at the same time. For Bist, who is a graduate in Arts from Hindu College in Delhi, things never came easily. He had to work hard to be where he is now. But he was smart enough to listen to any advice that was given to him.
At 18, Bist moved to Rajasthan. From being dropped in cars wherever he went, the son of a businessman father (exporter) and a mom who is a vice-principal in a school, was forced to change three buses - from Delhi to Jaipur en route to Kota and then to Jhalawar district.
"There is another piece of paper which he carries everywhere. It has six points: essentially the dos and don'ts about how to settle down when he goes on to bat, how to adapt, how to convert starts"
"From Kota to Jhalawar I had to take the Rajasthan State Transport Bus. I was wondering what the hell was I doing here sitting on these hard seats," Bist says, rolling his eyes, behind his designer spectacles. Sitting erect, hiding his head under the hood of his sweat shirt, he dozed off during the three-hour bus ride, which started at two in the morning.
Suddenly he realised something wet was on his folded hands. He moved his hand and felt hair. A sheep was standing next to him. He jumped out of his seat. "It is an experience I cannot forget."
But playing that match for Rest of Rajasthan against Jaipur in 2006, Bist turned heads with his batting. A year later he was in the Rajasthan Ranji squad. Immediately, in his fourth match he made 99, before pulling into the hands of the deep square leg off R Vinay Kumar against Karnataka. He threw the bat down, went back and "cried a lot."
He was 20, an immature kid who, Bist now says, was "blank" in his mind. "I can't still believe how I could get out on 99. Once you are that close, you need to make a century." He had played for Rajasthan Under-19 then, never for India at any level. He needed the exposure. He did not lose hope. "I know the struggles I have been through. That has only helped me to handle any pressure situation now," Bist says, moving his right arm across the left, which reveals a red-inked tattoo, which depicts the guardian angel, dedicated to his mother Madhumalti, who is his main inspiration.
Interestingly, another man who has inspired him is one of his nearest competitors, Abhinav Mukund, who is just fourteen runs behind him in the run aggregates this year at 871 runs. He remembers Abhinav not playing a single match during the 2008 Under-19 World Cup, which India won. "He went on to play for the senior team. And he makes big hundreds. His average of 57-plus in domestic cricket is really good."
Would that serve as a double inspiration for Bist to get the 1000 runs? Not really, he says. Last season he had four fiftes. "This year I have four hundreds," he says. What has changed is his mindset, how to manage the difficult situations. "I had the capability to score against any team but the self-belief was not there."
Mentally, Bist is ready for the final. He has batted at Nos. 3, 4 and 6. He has a century in each of those positions. He has also worked hard on his backfoot play, an area he felt he was getting vulnerable. Last year during the IPL, Bist was told by Delhi Daredevils that he was not playing the match against Mumbai Indians. But Bist was desperate to get an audience with Sachin Tendulkar. Eventually, he found himself in front of the legend. Initially, he stuttered but finally told Tendulkar that he was not happy with his backfoot play and was afraid of getting hit by the fast bowlers.
"He told me that by playing on the backfoot, the short statured player has an advantage because the ball can't even touch him against a fast bowler. He asked me to close my shoulder and not open it as then I would narrow the area where the ball could go on to hit," Bist says. As soon as he reached home, he made notes of whatever Tendulkar told him.
Bist's life is already littered with instances where he has received good advice that has shaped his career. There is another piece of paper which he carries everywhere. It has six points: essentially the dos and don'ts about how to settle down when he goes on to bat, how to adapt, how to convert starts. "One point is the ball you have played is history. You have to delete that ball (from memory)."