Rahul Tewatia and the romance of the struggle
He was 5 off 13. He finished 53 off 31. This innings made you want to believe that the tide can turn. Even in T20s
Among all the content IPL teams produce thanks to their access, "Dressing Room Talks", Ricky Ponting's debriefing after any Delhi Capitals game, is absolutely must-see. Players circle around Ponting, who often refers to his big black notebook, and listen to him break down the game. When Capitals win, it is done amid raucous laughter and applause. It is a rare window into how a team works.
Ponting also introduced to Capitals a concept of "Change Room Man of the Match" to appreciate the support acts that don't get spoken about during a match. He hands them badges for their contribution.
Ponting debuted this at the start of the 2019 season, which they began with a big win after losing the toss at Wankhede against the winningest IPL team of all. Rishabh Pant had scored a scarcely believable 78 off 27 that night, but Ponting commended Colin Ingram for his 47 off 32 from 29 for 2, Shikhar Dhawan for a forty, and Ishant Sharma, Trent Boult and Kagiso Rabada for their bowling. He said he didn't care that Axar Patel went for 42 in his three overs because the conditions were unfavorable for spinners. He spoke of the fielding. He called Capitals a "f*cken good" team. He chalked plans for the next day, and then began to walk off.
On his way, Rahul Tewatia stopped him. The conversation between the two wasn't audible because of the noise, but Ponting turned around and patronisingly said, "Boys, Tewatia took four catches, and wants a pat on the back." To the sound of mocking laughter. And walked off with an even more patronising smirk on his face.
Oh the ignominy of being forgotten.
A tender coconut in his hand, Axar immediately walked to Tewatia to mock him. "Who begs for recognition, bro?" Axar asked Tewatia in Hindi.
"Bro, you have to fight for what you are owed," Tewatia replied earnestly.
Tewatia had probably done all that was asked of him that night. He came out to bat with 16 balls remaining in the innings, made sure Pant got the strike for 12 of those, and also hit a six in the four he got. He was taken for 12 by Kieron Pollard in his first over before he took the wicket of the last batsman in his second. In between he took four catches; he had to dive for one, the other three were more regulation.
You could see why Ponting didn't choose him for the honours. More than that you could feel what Tewatia would have gone through that night. He was a proper journeyman. He had played only six first-class games, 18 List A games and 32 T20 ones. And he was about to turn 27. His T20 debut came in the IPL, for Rajasthan Royals in 2014, but he was soon traded to Kings XI Punjab. He next played in the IPL in 2017, only to be traded to Capitals (Daredevils back then) next year.
Tewatia would have known he was never going to be the star player. He wasn't a good enough legspinner to play for his bowling alone, and he hardly got to bat. This was a night he had made contributions in every small window of opportunity he had been given. He was in the midst of possible heroes - Ponting, Sourav Ganguly, his team-mates, including Haryana legspinner Amit Mishra - and would have spent every second of that debriefing hoping to hear his name and the applause and the recognition to go with it.
It never came. When he asked for it - not outside but within the team - the derision that did come wasn't entirely unexpected in a cricket change room full of alpha male egos. Tewatia bowled 38 balls, and batted 22 that season. He was soon traded back to Royals. It was a sensible move. Tewatia wasn't a finished product, and they didn't have a slot where they could develop a player.
Tewatia is the kind of player who will not get a lot of opportunity. His legspin is not classic, his batting unproven. It shows in how his home state Haryana struggled to find him a regular spot in their sides. Twenty20 cricket brought cricketers such as Tewatia a chance to build a career. They could super-specialise to such an extent they could get a game for a certain match-up to contain just one batsman. The short duration of the format means you can even afford to waste one player in case you don't get your desired set-piece. However, when you get that chance, you have to be precise and efficient with executing the skill you have been brought on to execute.
Tewatia is also the kind of player who will be more at home at a team with budget constraints so that it is then in their best interest to develop such a player. Apart from being one of those teams, Royals also needed Tewatia's super specialisation as the only Indian left-hand hitter anywhere near their first XI. Through this trade, Tewatia had come back to his spiritual home.
In his first match back for Royals, Tewatia managed to annoy the biggest fanbase in the IPL. Not only did he take three Chennai Super Kings wickets, he also brought out the "fingers in ears" celebration to mark one of those wickets. Later in the night he posted his photo with fingers in ears on his Instagram page. The comments section was inundated with abuse primarily from CSK fans. Some of them unimaginatively told him of alternate places to stick his fingers, some mockingly asked what noise he was blocking in empty stadiums, but the gist of the abuse was: "We have seen Philippe Coutinho celebrate this way for Barcelona, who are you? A walk-on player in a walk-on team."
The comments section was about to get busy in five days again.
Twenty20 cricket has freed batsmen up. They actually prepare to hit sixes. Earlier batsmen only used to practise in the nets, which could be claustrophobic. You didn't quite know and watch for yourself how far you were hitting balls. A Lance Klusener, who would hit just sixes in a training session, was an exception. Now they have intra-squad contests to see who hits more sixes. Royals had one such in their camp to see who hit most sixes in an over. According to Sanju Samson, the six-hitting machine, Tewatia hit four or five sixes in that over.
That day onwards, Andrew McDonald, the coach, and Zubin Barucha, the director of cricket, began to work on Tewatia's batting. A potential move to open the innings had also been considered, according to Samson. The same Samson was reduced to turning down a single with Tewatia at the other end.
In his second match back for Royals, Tewatia's 31-ball stay at the wicket brought forth the best and worst of T20 cricket the format. Its crunched nature leaves little room for personal struggle. Coaches tell batsmen if they are struggling, chances are others will too, so don't give up the ghost, but what if your side has scored 100 in nine overs chasing 224 and you, promoted to do a job, are unable to get the ball off the square? It happened, most infamously, to Yuvraj Singh, one of the cleanest strikers cricket has ever seen, in the World T20 final of 2014. It happened to a young Ravindra Jadeja when he was promoted up the order in a 2009 World T20 game. It keeps happening to someone or the other.
The essence of sport is to fight through tough situations. The crunched nature of this sport doesn't allow for it. Those crunching numbers have been egging coaches on to pull back the batsman who is sucking the momentum out of an innings. You have only so many deliveries and 10 wickets to make use of them. Personal struggle is a nicety best left for the nets. The kindest of people wanted Tewatia to commit the less dramatic version of stepping on his wicket: just leave the crease and swing so that you can at least get stumped when you hit. At one point, even Samson asked him to do the same: run down the pitch and hit hard.
Tewatia didn't want to. This is where the philosophical essence of sport comes into question. I once goaded Stephen Fleming to say retiring-out people should be normalised. He wouldn't have any of it. I gave him the example of Yuvraj in the 2014 final. "That's the beauty of it, isn't it? Not let someone get away with it just because they can tap out. 'Not my day today, I am out.'"
Fleming has played a lot of international cricket and now coaches a successful T20 franchise. To him, the philosophy was clear: you do not give up the struggle. Tewatia never tapped out. He kept doing the right thing. He kept picking the wrong'uns, kept trying to go over long-off, but kept getting beaten. With every dot and single, the walls kept closing in, the asking rate kept rising, and Samson kept getting frustrated. Imagine the abuse that awaited on his Instagram page.
You wonder how Tewatia felt when Samson nearly holed out, playing a frustrated shot because of all the momentum loss. Or when Samson refused to take a single lest Tewatia get back on strike. This is where you saw T20 at its practical best. That match-up - Tewatia against Maxwell - was proving to be the worst, and Samson had just hit two sixes off the same bowler. Ego or pity was taken out of this decision making. "How will Rahul feel if I push him further into the dumps by not taking the one?" No sir, not the time to think that.
That also showed how over-rated singles and rotating strike in T20s can be. On the night Kings XI Punjab hit 11 sixes, Royals cleared the ropes 18 times to make up for all the lack of rotation of strike. It happens in 80% of the matches: score more in boundaries, and win the game.
The commentators rightly questioned the wisdom of promoting Tewatia on a night when orthodox hitting produced more and easy runs. Cameras kept panning to the dugout and kept showing worried faces. Tewatia kept the noise out. He kept trying to hit that one six to get him going. In the timeout, at 5 off 13, having failed to get the better of the legspinner, Tewatia told his captain, Steven Smith, he was still in it, that he could hit three sixes each of Sheldon Cottrell and Mohammed Shami, international bowlers both. A bemused Smith said, "Mate, that is great self-belief." Was there some derision in that?
In the end, the sensational turnaround - six sixes in the last eight balls Tewatia faced - didn't prove any of the rationalists wrong. He was perhaps not the right choice to send at No. 4, but you have also got to look at the shallow batting line-up. Stepping on your wicket is perhaps the better solution if an Andre Russell is waiting in the dugout. There is no way this kind of an effort is repeatable. In hindsight, if Kings XI had bowled M Ashwin - remember Tewatia's struggle against non-turning legspin earlier - instead of Sheldon Cottrell, this might not even have happened in the first place.
This innings was not about all that. It transcended tactics. It went into the larger essence of sport. How can you be an elite competitor and just give up? This innings made you want to believe in the romance of the struggle. That the tide can turn. Even in a duration as small as T20 cricket. That tapping out, in life as in sport, is not really the option after all.
"You have to fight for what you are owed."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo