In an age when every young Indian batsman aspires to have IPL contracts, 25-year old Ankit Kalsi is different. It's not that he doesn't want an IPL gig, but he's realistic about where he can make a name for himself. He's yet to play T20 cricket for his state, Himachal Pradesh, and is least perturbed by it, even though he wants to change perceptions.
Kalsi isn't cricket's definition of elegant. He has a slightly open stance, an Abhishek Nayar-like crouch as he faces up to the bowlers. Then there's a slight shuffle followed by either a forward press or push back. To the outsider, it may come across as fidgety, but it's a method that has so far worked for him. His coaches haven't tampered with his fundamentals. He loves to stonewall attacks, isn't afraid of being stereotyped because big runs in "first-class cricket" matter to him. While it could be a stretch to say he is an anomaly in the tattoo and Instagram generation, he's certainly different.
On Saturday, he brought up his fifth first-class century, a blunting 340 deliveries, 39 of those in the 90s, not one bit nervous at having lost three wickets around him and suddenly having the No. 11 for company. The fields were spread out to give him a run, to attack the lower order. Were India Blue hoping for a desperate shot? Sorry, not happening. Kalsi waited, waited and then with the field in, took the calculated risk off the last ball to get three and his century.
With the landmark out of the way and with rain clouds overhead, he looked to hit out. After hours and hours of blocking, his first real attempt at aggression resulted in him slicing a catch to short third man. The knock helped India Blue post 285; it could've been much more if not for a batting collapse.
Kalsi isn't really a well-known name in India. Chances of him being watched on national TV are virtually impossible, with domestic cricket least on the priority of broadcasters. Even if it were, it is likely Himachal would've been overlooked for more box office teams like Karnataka, Mumbai or Vidarbha. If not for feedback from match referees, who these days act as talent scouts and pass on their feedback - through official channels - to the national selectors, Kalsi's batting may have only been recognised by raw numbers and not batting style. He may have not been picked for Duleep Trophy.
"I quit engineering after my first year, and as an 18-year old, didn't find my way into the Under-19 set-up. I got left out for three seasons in a row, so I had to make something of my career. I've learnt to make the most of every opportunity, and didn't want to throw it away once I got a start," he said on Saturday. "I took myself for granted. The whole of 2017-18 season, I was on the bench with the senior team. That is when realisation dawned that I had to be fitter, more consistent and mentally tuned to the demands of cricket. That changed my outlook, and since then the mindset when I go in to bat is I have a job to do and I can't take it lightly."
That Kalsi's innings ended the way it did was largely because of Diwesh Pathania, who earlier in the day triggered a collapse with a burst of superb, accurate bowling. Pathania is tall, hits the deck hard and bowls in the mid-130 kph. Already 30, he may not be anywhere near the national reckoning but even a tournament like this - decried for its lack of context and star players - is still a massive deal for players like him. Every opportunity is gold.
Pathania plays for Services, a sports body devoid of funds because they don't get annual BCCI grants unlike other associations, a team that features in the lower rung of the Ranji Trophy table, a team that hires physios and trainers by pooling up their match fees, a team that lives and trains at the substandard Palam Grounds, which has a non-functional gym, no pool, poor wickets and leaky toilets. Yet, those who play there - largely comprising professionals from the Army, Airforce and Navy - have no complaints.
Pathania, who only started playing proper cricket six years ago, is here on merit, having picked up 40 wickets in nine Ranji Trophy games last season. He began his first-class career, four years ago, with figures of 13 for 83 on debut against Jharkhand. He isn't express quick but he does nip the ball around and prides himself on being consistent, traits that came to the fore here as finished with figures of 32-12-55-4.
"Playing in this tournament is a big deal for me, because you inspire your own team-mates at Services," he said. "Opportunities are rare at the next big level for players from Services, so performing here is some kind of motivation for our young players that you can be here too. I know I may not play for India, but it's about getting that one chance and proving to yourself that you're good enough to bowl at these guys, a lot of whom are at that step. That way, this is a great opportunity."
The Duleep Trophy may not have the significance it once did, but for players like Kalsi and Pathania, it's a window into the wider spectrum of Indian cricket.