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Anuj Rawat is a big-hitting left-hand keeper from Uttarakhand in the Rishabh Pant mould

The wicketkeeper-batter's rise in cricket has mirrored that of the Delhi Capitals captain, but his consistency on the domestic circuit is yet to translate into IPL success

Vishal Dikshit
Vishal Dikshit
On his first- class debut, a few days shy of his 18th birthday, Anuj Rawat dislocated a finger while keeping to Delhi's quick bowlers.
Rawat, who got the opportunity because Delhi's regular keeper, Rishabh Pant, was away on India A duty, was considering withdrawing from the next game when his team-mate and friend from their academy days together, Pulkit Narang, said to him: "Ungli kat jaye, kuch bhi ho jaye, mana nahi karna. Ranji se bada kuch nahi hota [No matter what happens, even if you lose a finger, don't turn down a game. There's nothing bigger than Ranji]."
It's a piece of advice Rawat has tried to hold on to since: whether it has been squeezing in IPL trials just ahead of a domestic game, or being open to moving up or down the order - don't say no.
He was barely able to hold his bat because of the dislocated finger, but he did play the next game, against Railways, and he believes his 74 earned him a place in the squad for the Under-19 Asia Cup a month later in Malaysia. "Karma," he calls it.
He was retained in the Delhi side for the 2018-19 Ranji season while Pant was away on international duty, but Rawat didn't start well, failing to go past 30 in eight straight innings.
Then came a cold and foggy December morning in Delhi. Madhya Pradesh had been bowled out for 132, and as Delhi began their innings, Rawat, who usually batted at No. 6 or 7, went to grab some food. Just then MP's Avesh Khan struck twice in the first over. Delhi coach Mithun Manhas asked Rawat to pad up and he walked in to bat at 8 for 3 in the third over.
"There was hardly any time to process anything," Rawat says, speaking ahead of the ongoing IPL season. "Like some people say, 'You perform better when you play with a free and open mind.'"
He took Delhi to 261, hitting 14 fours and four sixes in his 183-ball 134. "Whatever I learned throughout my life, I played out there," he says. Khaali mind tha [I played with an open mind].
"When I went in, I was a bit nervous and Avesh was bowling, but I middled my first ball. He was swinging it and bowling quick. I just kept playing according to whatever ball I got. I brought up my century with a straight six that went into the second tier."
A year later, in December 2019, Rawat was called for IPL trials by Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders, not long after a Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy innings in which he hit seven sixes in the arc between long-on and deep midwicket against a Saurashtra attack that included fast bowlers Jaydev Unadkat and Chetan Sakariya.
"To be honest, I wasn't even going to go for the trial because there were domestic matches at the time," Rawat says. "[Royals] insisted I go just for a day or even a couple of hours, so I went to Nagpur. The trial went well, and I was about to leave for Ranji and then I got a call for the KKR trial. I gave that [in Thane, outside of Mumbai] and went straight to Kerala for a Ranji game the next day."
Royals bought Rawat for Rs 80 lakhs (about US$113,000), four times his base price, but he sat on the bench for the 2020 season, and when he finally got a chance to bat, in October 2021, he was out for a first-ball duck.
"Obviously I was a little disappointed when I got out, but I switched off immediately because I don't mind first-ball dismissals so much," he says. "It would have been worse if I had taken the team close and then got out. I told myself that such things happen on the first ball."
And he was accustomed to long waits to make it into XIs. It had been hard to break into age-group sides as a keeper-batter.
"At U-14 and U-16, I didn't get picked as a wicketkeeper because those teams already had a keeper," he says. "It was hard to replace those who were already in the team, so I thought I was not getting selected because I'm a keeper."
Rawat, now 22, moved to Delhi as an 11-year-old from a small hill town 65km from Nainital, a popular tourist destination in Uttarakhand. Ramnagar is best known for the Jim Corbett National Park, and if you walk around town early in the morning, you're more likely to spot a tiger than a kid walking to cricket practice.
Growing up in a farming household, Rawat played cricket at home and in the fields nearby but didn't watch a lot of it on TV, although he grew to like the game when he watched Adam Gilchrist or Kumar Sangakkara play. One day his parents sat their two sons down to talk careers. His older brother said he wanted to go into medicine.
"I said straight away, I want to play cricket, nothing else," Rawat recalls. His father, a local cricketer, was supportive of his younger son's ambitions and decided to send him to Delhi, where he would have access to high-quality cricket facilities.
A family friend suggested he become a keeper because every XI needs one. "A left-handed batter who could open and keep wicket was a rare combination then," Rawat says.
It was another thing he was to have in common with Pant, who is two years older and also an Uttarakhand lad who moved to Delhi for better opportunities.
Rawat enrolled in former first-class player Rajkumar Sharma's West Delhi Cricket Academy, now famous as Virat Kohli's starting ground.
It took some adjusting to, living away from home and because "the facilities and coaching were very different. It took me five-six years to play professional cricket."
One of the things he learned during that period was to be flexible. He had played in the top order for many years when he was picked in the Ranji squad as a middle-order keeper-batter. He had been taught at his academy to keep an "open mindset" about your batting position.
"I used to play in the top three in age-group cricket. In Ranji and in other formats in domestic cricket, I've played at different positions. I must keep an open mind. It helps a lot. These things I learnt in my childhood, and they are helping me a lot now."
By the time the 2022 IPL mega-auction came around, Rawat was known in domestic cricket as a boundary-hitter.
Royal Challengers Bangalore were looking to buy a left-hand batter to complement Faf du Plessis in their top order. In one of their mock auctions, Mike Hesson, RCB's director of cricket operations, got into a "bidding war" with head coach Sanjay Bangar, who was posing as a Punjab Kings representative, and bagged Rawat for Rs 2.8 crore ($373,000). In the actual auction, RCB eventually bagged Rawat for Rs 3.4 crore ($453,000), 17 times his base price.
Rawat was yet to score a run in the IPL since his debut in the tournament last May, but unlike the previous two seasons, with RCB he got a chance to bat straightaway, opening with his captain du Plessis against Punjab Kings. Rawat showed no signs of nerves, getting off the mark by walking down the track to hit medium-pacer Sandeep Sharma for a six over long-on.
Against Royals, Rawat hit fast bowler Prasidh Krishna for back-to-back fours. He saved some of his best shots for Mumbai Indians - flat-batting Unadkat for consecutive sixes on his way to 66 off 47 balls to power RCB to their third straight win.
Since then he has had a string of low scores - 12, 0, 4, 0 - and finds himself out of the XI now that Kohli has moved up to open with du Plessis. But he has drawn comparisons with Pant not just for the similarities in their backgrounds but also because of their fearless approach to batting.
What remains to be seen is whether Rawat can remain flexible and handle the pressures of the big stage the way Pant has all these years.

Vishal Dikshit is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo