Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
As Rajat Patidar sat at home in Indore recovering from an ACL reconstruction in his right knee in 2014, he used to watch the IPL on TV, dreaming of one day playing in the league as a bowling allrounder. All of 20 then, Patidar had just broken into the state probables as an offspinner but was told by the doctors in no uncertain terms that he would be out of the game for at least eight months.
On Friday, seven years on, Patidar realised his dream of playing in the IPL, but as a top-order batsman for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. He even got to bat with his idol Virat Kohli, whom he has looked up to since 2015, "from around the time he went through that physical transformation to be the fittest version of himself."
Patidar's family wanted him to focus on getting a degree so that he could take over the family business, but he drew inspiration from Cheteshwar Pujara.
"I'd just had surgery on one knee, he had a surgery in both his knees and was out of the game for two years or so after making his debut," Patidar told ESPNcricinfo prior to joining the Royal Challengers camp in Chennai. "I convinced my family with his example. It wasn't easy but they understood after a lot of chats."
As he now trains with Kohli, AB de Villers - players he has looked up to - Patidar is pleasantly surprised at the latest upturn in his cricket career. At 27, he has already risen to become a key member of Madhya Pradesh in the domestic circuit. He is at a phase that coaches believe a batsman is at his prime, and now wants to make a splash in the IPL.
"It's been amazing, the last few months," Patidar says. "The night of the IPL auction, I received a text from Virat, saying 'welcome Rajat, wishing you the best, go smash it.' I didn't even have his number. Now, getting a chance to bat with him in the nets and maybe even in the matches will be a dream."
Patidar hasn't risen to instant stardom. It has taken him five years of grind in the domestic circuit to earn his maiden IPL trials, when the Kolkata Knight Riders called him to their camp in Mumbai after the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, India's domestic T20 competition. In five innings, he smashed 221 runs at a strike rate of 153.47. He formed a formidable association at the top of the order with leading run-getter Venkatesh Iyer, who would be picked by the Knight Riders at the 2021 auction.
"I got a feeling that I wouldn't be picked by KKR, but I had no idea RCB were watching me too, so when I got the call-up, it was very pleasant," Patidar says, as he was bought for INR 20 lakh at the auction. "For the last two seasons, my family and I would hope my name is at least shortlisted to make it to the auction day, forget about being picked. This time, I felt 'okay, I have the runs, I've been shortlisted, so at least my name will be called out'. So when my phone started ringing again and again while I was in a meeting Chandrakant Pandit sir (Madhya Pradesh's head coach) had organised for the batsmen, I knew I'd been picked. I was trying to control my emotions."
Patidar first started off wanting to be a fast bowler, but lack of opportunities - he didn't play any form of age-group cricket for Madhya Pradesh until he was 18 - meant he had to try and do something different. He switched to offspin, "basically to do anything to find a place in junior cricket." But the injury forced him to rethink, and it's a decision that has proven to be a blessing in disguise. The change to being a batsman came about after Amay Khurariya, the former India batsmen, took Patidar under his wings and worked with him.
Eighteen months after that surgery, he made his Ranji Trophy debut for Madhya Pradesh as a top-order batsman. It capped off a remarkable turnaround in fortunes of a young aspirant; remarkable because he first started as a No. 11 in his first season of Under-19 cricket for Madhya Pradesh. And two seasons later, he broke into the senior state team as a top-order batsman.
He would make a debut hundred against Baroda and follow it with another century on a rank turner in Gwalior, against Railways. It was a match where Jalaj Saxena took the second-best figures in Ranji Trophy history - a 16-wicket haul - to win Madhya Pradesh the game inside three days. Patidar would make 113 off just 131 balls, sweeping against the turn off Karn Sharma and toying with the bowling. It's a knock he looks back upon fondly.
"It was turning square, so you could either survive or look to score quickly," he remembers. "I thought while I'm in it, I should take the game forward and score runs. It's not like I didn't trust my defense, but the situation demanded I look to be positive. Everything clicked." It so happened that the match was also televised, and he got "good feedback" from a lot of former players and commentators.
That knock underpinned Patidar's importance to a Madhya Pradesh team that was going through a churn. Their most talismanic player Devendra Bundela had decided to retire, Naman Ojha was struggling with form, and Saxena, their star allrounder, was looking for opportunities elsewhere. Patidar's rise couldn't have come at a better time. Since then, he has been a key member of their side across formats.
Patidar has been on the Royal Challengers' radar for two seasons now, ever since they ramped up their scouting under Malolan Rangarajan, the former Tamil Nadu allrounder. Mike Hesson, their director of cricket, got good feedback and sought videos of Patidar. It wasn't until after the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s that they decided to go for him.
Patidar took part in a four-day conditioning camp for uncapped players in Bengaluru last month, where he is believed to have impressed new batting consultant Sanjay Bangar. Patidar is short in stature but has the power game to go big. He is also an excellent player of spin, like that knock against Railways in the Ranji Trophy proved early in his career.
"I batted through five or six scenarios at the camp," he says. "First one was, I walked into bat with the score on 50 after six overs. I had to take it to 115 at the end of 12 overs, and we could lose just one wicket. Then in the second, I had a lower-order batsman in Shahbaz Ahmed for company in a similar scenario. Then, I had to score 20 in a Super Over, which I just about managed.
"Then we were facing spinners and were given specific areas to target. We also had to take doubles every second ball, or a new batsmen would come in and we'd have to rotate among three of us. These are all aspects to training I hadn't seen in T20s earlier, and after that four-day camp itself, I got a taste of what it feels to be in such an environment. The coaches were happy with my batting and gave me a lot of positive feedback."
It's these useful feedbacks he wants to take on board this season. He has also spent a lot of time working with Pandit, one of the most respected domestic coaches.
"Chandu sir has been my sounding board ever since he came on board as Madhya Pradesh coach," he says. "He has spoken to me of the need to be an all-weather player. He has helped me access areas of my game I thought were limited. I'd get edgy if I didn't hit a boundary early on, but he worked on that aspect, got me to train differently so that I could keep strike changing over. I hope I can use all that experience in the middle and be part of a successful RCB team."