Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
WI v ENG (1)
IND v AUS (1)
WI v IRE (EME) (1)
Legends League (2)
Abu Dhabi T10 (2)
IND v ENG (W-A) (1)
SA v BAN (W) (1)
"He messaged me asking, 'Hi Lalit, how are you doing?'
"My reply was: 'Hello, sir. I cannot express how excited I am to meet you - like, I cannot express in words.'"
In his first few meetings with Ponting, Lalit struggled for words, finding it difficult to form sentences. "I would go numb and just listen."
In 2019, Capitals picked Lalit, a big-hitting finisher who also bowls handy offspin, for his base price of Rs 20 lakh (approximately US$28,000). But it wasn't until 2021 that he played his first game for them.
He remembers vividly Ponting handing him his Capitals cap. "That moment was so, so special. He said, 'You have worked for 412 days for this moment, and I haven't seen anyone working so hard. Don't doubt yourself, just go and enjoy. You deserve it.'"
Lalit's cricket journey started on the streets of Najafgarh, a town on the outskirts of Delhi that was put on the cricket map by Virender Sehwag. Playing cricket after school was a ritual for Lalit and his older brother, Tarun. In 2009 their father came across a newspaper advertisement for a cricket camp at a local academy and enrolled both his sons there, but soon he realised he could only bear the expenses for one of them. So Tarun dropped cricket. "Perhaps I benefited from being the younger one," Lalit says with a sheepish smile.
Initially he was a wicketkeeper-batter, but he wasn't particularly good with the gloves. And there was the inherent disadvantage of being a wicketkeeper to be considered. "There can be only one wicketkeeper in a team," Lalit says. "Many kids used to come for trials - two-three of them would even be part of the existing squad. So I hardly got a chance. Also, wicketkeepers rarely get the Man-of-the-Match award. So there was no trophy to show at home."
Realising he wasn't making much progress in his chosen role, Lalit began to bowl offspin.
It wasn't until 2016 that he came into the limelight. That year, in club cricket, he hit six sixes in an over twice in four months. The first was for Sporting Club, against Madras Club at the Feroz Shah Kotla in the Delhi and District Cricket Association T20 League. The second was in the JK Memorial T20 tournament; he was playing for Friends Club against Ashva Bros.
That gave him some recognition, but he says the real turning point came when he started playing for Air India. "I wasn't getting a chance in Delhi's Under-19 team. Then one day Sanjay Dobal sir, who was assistant manager in Air India at that time, called me. When I was playing at the U-14 level, he had invited me as a guest player for a local tournament, where I scored a double-hundred in a 40-over game. So he knew there was this guy from Najafgarh.
"He asked me if I would play for Air India. The thing in club cricket is, if you are playing for a big club, a corporate club like Air India, you get more opportunities. Then you can play high-profile tournaments, like DY Patil Cup.
"I told him, 'Sir, your team is so strong. I don't want to come there and carry drinks.' I wanted to play as many games as possible. And they had players like Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh, [Manvinder] Bisla bhaiyya, Rajat [Bhatia] bhaiyya. Almost all the players in their team were IPL players.
"But he backed me from the very first game. I was Man of the Match in the first match. I scored 60-something in 19-odd balls. From that day, my journey picked up pace. I started getting more opportunities, and I started doing well consistently."
Soon he was playing for Delhi in all three formats.
In 2021 he got his first opportunity in the IPL. He played seven matches for Capitals that season but didn't impress much, scoring 68 runs in five innings at a strike rate of 93.15 - not the kind of thing you want from your finisher. His fast offbreaks fetched him slightly better returns, four wickets at an economy of 7.21.
In cricket, if you are a batter, you have more bad days than good. T20 exaggerates that imbalance, especially if you are a finisher. While Lalit was doing fairly well in the Ranji Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy, he wasn't getting big runs in T20 - though he was primarily a product of the shortest format. He has played so many short-format games in Delhi's local tournaments that he says T20 cricket is "in my blood". That's not to say that he doesn't want to play Test cricket; given a choice, he would like to play Test cricket first for India, he says.
He realised success eluding him in T20 was perhaps because his definition of success was wrong.
"Earlier, I used to have lots of personal goals - to score a fifty, to score a hundred, to score this many runs in the season. But when I talked to seniors, like Ishant [Sharma] bhaiyya, Shikhar [Dhawan] bhaiyya, they said, 'You will always have personal goals, but at the end of the day, you become a big player when you win games for your team. If your team needs 20 runs and you score those 20 runs, then you are a match-winner. If you score a hundred but your team loses, then…'
"That gave me a lot of confidence and cleared my doubts. After that I always focused on what my team required."
He mentions the 2021-22 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. In four innings there, he only scored 70 runs with a highest of 28, but those runs came at a strike rate of 218.75. He was assigned the role of the finisher and he did the job.
"You are never satisfied [with your own performance]; you always want more and more," he says. "But at the end of the day, it's all about the team's requirement. What matters is how you are doing in the role you have been assigned."
Capitals bought Lalit again at the auction in February 2022, for Rs 65 lakh ($86,000). He celebrated that payday by smashing 177 against Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy. It was his maiden first-class hundred and included 17 fours and ten sixes. He was on 24 when Delhi lost their seventh wicket, but he added 199 with the last three batters, who contributed only 35.
Just before the IPL started, he hit 100 and 70 in intra-squad games for Capitals, and he carried confidence from those innings into the tournament.
In their opening match, chasing 178 against Mumbai Indians, Capitals were 72 for 5 before Lalit, first with Shardul Thakur and then with Axar Patel, steered them to victory with an unbeaten 48 off 38 balls.
"It's the first time I have seen him and he has been incredible," Shane Watson, Capitals' assistant coach, said. "He is incredibly skilled. The power he has got and all the shot options he has got against quicks and spin bowling is incredible. More than anything, [that innings] was Lalit showing his skills to the world."
In the next game, against Gujarat Titans, he was involved in another important partnership, this time with his captain, Rishabh Pant. Capitals were 34 for 3 chasing 172 when Lalit joined Pant. The two revived the innings and took the side to 95 in the 12th over when Lalit was run out for a 22-ball 25. Capitals eventually lost by 14 runs but he had once again shown his worth.
The turnaround in form and fortune didn't happen overnight. Before the season, he made some changes to his backlift, footwork and trigger movement. To be mentally stronger, and calmer, he took up meditation about two years ago and has been practising it since. "It helps me control my thoughts," he says.
"The problem I was facing was, I was doing outstanding in practice but wasn't able to execute in the match. Because during practice there is no pressure, and in the match, I wasn't able to handle it.
"I spoke to a lot of players about it. Shane Watson is with us now, we have mental toughness classes with him. So I attended those. And I realised every player goes through these phases, so I asked them how they tackle those situations. What suited me, I adopted that.
"Things like remaining calm but at the same time staying aggressive. For me, instincts matter a lot, and undoubtedly you have to follow them. And that happens only if we are mentally calm and have control of our body."
In his transition from being a largely unknown, uncapped player to almost having sealed a regular spot in Capitals' XI, Lalit's thought process has changed. "In my first year at Capitals, I was thinking only about getting just one opportunity," he says. "I was thinking, after that I would have that confidence to go back to domestic cricket and dominate there. Now it's like I want to leave a mark here also."
His success is a matter of pride for his family, and Lalit himself feels proud when people refer to his mother and father as "Lalit's parents". Or when happiness reflects on their faces when they hear people talking about him. Or when his father's boss wants to have dinner with him.
He wants to share his knowledge and experience. "I have learnt a lot of things in this journey. So whenever a junior talks to me, I think of that time when I was in his place, and how I can help him."
And he would like his father to retire now. "He has been in a private job for 32 years. He commutes 30-40km daily on his scooter. When I asked him to retire, he was like, 'Let it be.' I think that's typical of all middle-class people."
But Lalit no longer goes numb while talking to Ponting. "Now I am a bit more comfortable. Our discussions revolve more around my role and responsibility in the side, how to execute my plans and how to express myself on the field. And whenever I have any doubt, I simply ask him."