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Feature

Bharat's brilliance behind stumps repays India's faith

In Pant's absence, the prospect of playing Kishan might have been tempting, but it was Bharat they turned to

KS Bharat held on to a low chance to send back Steven Smith in the first innings in Delhi  •  BCCI

KS Bharat held on to a low chance to send back Steven Smith in the first innings in Delhi  •  BCCI

Sometimes, one ball can contain nearly every ingredient that defines a Test match. Pat Cummins' dismissal off Ravindra Jadeja on the third morning in Delhi was one such ball. It had the pinpoint, stump-seeking accuracy of India's spinners; the deadly low skid that made this pitch so hard to bat on; and the sweep - the high-risk, high-reward and highly polarising shot that became the subject of a thousand post-mortems.
There was one other ingredient too. After the ball snuck under Cummins' bat, it hit the inner edge of off stump, cannoned into the side of middle stump, and disappeared into the gloves of KS Bharat.
The ball hadn't turned sharply, but it hadn't gone entirely with the arm either, straightening just a hint after pitching. It had kept low, too, before taking that double-deflection at the stumps. Bharat had tracked the entire journey, some of it coinciding with Cummins taking a wild swipe at the ball, and come away with a clean collection.
It was inconsequential, the ball dead by the time it reached him, but it was a superb bit of glovework.
Later in the day, with India four down and 27 away from their target, Bharat would get a promotion up the order, and score a bright, unbeaten 23 off 22 balls, including three sweetly timed cover-driven fours and a solid thunk of a slog-swept six.
Bharat had scored 8 and 6 in his two previous innings in this series, his first two innings in Test cricket. Sunday's cameo must have brought him quite a bit of confidence after that start. To some watching from outside, the cameo may even have seemed like a career-lengthening lifeline.
But it is unlikely India would have given serious thought to leaving Bharat out after Delhi even if he had made a duck in the second innings. They probably recognise that anyone can go through a string of low scores on challenging pitches, and they probably saw flashes of Bharat's counterattacking potential even in his brief visits to the crease in Nagpur and on day two in Delhi.
And they would have recognised how good his keeping has been, particularly while standing up to spin, on pitches with a fair degree of natural variation and inconsistent bounce. He hasn't missed a chance yet, and he has only let seven balls go past him for byes - three of them were balls he'd had to dive for, wayward deliveries from the fast bowlers that veered down the leg side.
Most of the time, he has gone about his business almost unnoticed, apart from the times he has effected a dismissal. The stumping of Marnus Labuschagne in Nagpur, off a Jadeja delivery that both turned and bounced, was a delight, and so too was the understated ease of the catch he took off Steven Smith's outside edge in the first innings in Delhi. R Ashwin had dismissed Labuschagne lbw earlier in the over, with a ball that turned from more or less the same spot on the pitch. The ball to Smith kept going with the angle from around the wicket; Smith was flummoxed, Bharat was not.
These moments were a long time coming.
Back in May 2018, the selectors picked Bharat as designated keeper for the four-day leg of an India A tour of England, and Rishabh Pant as the keeper for the 50-overs leg. That A tour was to be a shadow tour - the senior India side was also touring England that summer. At the time, the selectors viewed Bharat as the best pure keeper among India's young prospects, and Pant as an exciting maverick with the bat whose glovework still needed polishing.
When an injured Wriddhiman Saha was ruled out of that England tour, it was Pant whom India called up to their Test squad, and not Bharat. Genius finds its own pathways.
But Bharat remained a key member of India's second rung of players. Since the start of 2018, he has played 19 first-class games for India A, more than anyone apart from opening batter Abhimanyu Easwaran. He has scored 971 runs at 48.55 in these India A games, including three hundreds.
When India phased Saha out of their Test squad last year, Bharat became Pant's understudy. It was natural, then, that Bharat made his debut when Pant was out injured. The competing claims of Ishan Kishan might have tempted India's team management too, but it was to Bharat they turned at the start of this Border-Gavaskar series.
At the start of the 2019-20 home season, India left Pant out of their Test XI and recalled Saha for a series against South Africa. They backed Saha's superior glovework - Virat Kohli called him the best keeper in the world - which they felt was essential on turning tracks in India, and reckoned that Pant's keeping still needed work. Pant put in that work and turned himself into a world-class keeper by the time India hosted England in early 2021, but until then, Saha had remained the first choice in home Tests.
The same logic has been at play at the start of this India-Australia series. India value Bharat's ability with the bat, but they recognise above all that he is the best keeper they have in Pant's absence.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo