Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha
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The India women's cricket team were touring England for a multi-format series at the time. And Bhatia, uncapped then and inexplicably left out of the squad though she had not played a single match in the home series against South Africa only two months previously, was toiling away in the Reliance International Cricket Stadium nets in her home town, Baroda.
Across 45 days, under the watch of former India wicketkeeper-batter Kiran More, Bhatia went about strengthening her case for an overdue India debut. "I was definitely heartbroken because I was expecting that maybe I'll get another series where I can prove myself," she says.
It was during those long hours spent in the nets that she got a chance to keep to and bat against experienced Ranji Trophy players from the Baroda senior state team. Among them were the Pandya brothers, Hardik and Krunal, India and IPL allrounders.
"Just a cover drive to Hardik bhaiyya gave me a lot of confidence that I can also play well. I would get out to him, but to play good shots against him was a confidence-booster," she remembers. "Krunal bhaiyya also helped me, with inputs on how to bat in the death overs."
Hardik encouraged Bhatia to put any remnants of her disappointment at not being picked for the England tour behind her. "He is very down to earth and we developed a good rapport. He said, 'Look, I haven't seen a girl play as well as you do. It won't be long before you make a comeback.'"
A little over seven months on from that conversation, Bhatia has made giant strides towards establishing herself as a formidable long-term batting prospect for India. She made an emphatic debut across formats on the tour of Australia last September-October, and then was the highest scorer for India A when they won the 2021-22 Senior Women's One-Day Challenger Trophy. That effectively helped her leapfrog other, more experienced, names to seal a place in the squads for the recently concluded series against New Zealand and the ODI World Cup.
"[Being left out for the England tour] was a blessing in disguise because I got to spend that much time improving my game preparing for the Australia tour with Kiran sir," she says. "I was very lucky that he was in town at that time. Those 45 days I got 20-odd sessions with him. That totally transformed my cricketing perspective. Getting personalised coaching on batting and wicketkeeping from him changed my outlook towards my game. I became more confident, positive and attacking, and my power-hitting went up."
Bhatia sought the tutelage of More, a former India international with over 150 caps and a former chief selector of men's national team, on the advice of then India Women head coach and former India batter WV Raman. More, who also lives in Baroda, was familiar with the exploits of the left-hand batter-wicketkeeper who had been something of the talk of the town since her teens.
"I had seen a few videos of hers and knew she was doing well on the domestic circuit," More says. Raman had spoken to More about Bhatia as well, saying she would benefit from his coaching. "She then contacted me, visited my academy, and we started working on the finer areas of her game in the open nets: how to pinch singles and two runs and also be aggressive in approach," More says.
Bhatia's ability to alternate between dropping anchor and going on the offensive was most memorably on view during her maiden international half-century, in the third ODI on the tour of Australia. She hammered a 69-ball 64, steering India's highest successful ODI chase, putting on a vital century stand with Shafali Verma. Bhatia was only 20 then, playing just her third game in India colours and replacing captain Mithali Raj at No. 3. The result ended Australia's world-record streak of consecutive ODI wins at 26.
"She is a terrific cricketer and very strong also - mentally and physically," says More. "She is a quick learner, works very hard on everything. If she wants to do something, she'll practise it ten times. And she asks a lot of questions - 'Why this and why not that.' I like her attitude.
"When she comes for practice, she's totally focused, gives her 110% and she wants to practise every day, so I have to tell her, 'You need to rest as well and cannot keep practising every day.' When someone is that focused on improving, they are bound to do well sooner or later."
"I wasn't intimidated by the occasion. It felt normal," Bhatia says about the tour of Australia. "I had spoken to my India seniors about what it's like to debut against world-class opponents. Head coach Ramesh [Powar] sir and batting coach [Shiv Sunder] Das sir gave me good inputs during the Bengaluru camp and they had explained match scenarios and my batting role. That helped me mentally gear up and gave me confidence."
During that time in Bengaluru, she provided a taste of things to come when, in a 50-over intra-squad day-night game, she bludgeoned five sixes, making the coaching staff and some of the national selectors in attendance sit up and take notice. It's a feat, she says, she relived in her head going into the Australia assignment.
Bhatia says her confident on-field demeanour and style of play is an outcome of playing in multiple sports from a young age. She is a black belt in karate, a swimmer, and has played badminton at the district level. "So every time I'd step on a cricket field, things feel achievable. It's like a positive challenge that you feel good about."
It was when one of her first badminton coaches moved to a part of Baroda further away from where she lives that cricket first appeared on the horizon. It was around this time, when her father, Harish, was looking for alternatives, that Baroda Ranji player Pinal Shah, who lives in the Bhatias' neighbourhood, told him one day that girls too played cricket in the city.
It wouldn't be long before Harish enrolled eight-year-old Bhatia and her sister, Josita, older by three years, at the Youth Service Centre (YSC), one of the oldest clubs in the city. Under YSC coach Raju Parab, Bhatia cut her teeth in cricket. Though she is naturally right-handed, she was taught to bat left-handed because of the relative edge left-hand batters (and bowlers) have in the sport.
For a secondary skill, she was encouraged to bowl medium pace. Then some of the Baroda Cricket Association (BCA) selectors came calling at the club, looking for wicketkeepers, and asked her to take a shy at keeping. "Next day Papa bought me wicketkeeping gloves and pads," she says. "My sister remained a medium-pacer because the coaches felt it would be easier to train the younger one to make the switch."
At 11, Bhatia would make her Under-19 debut for Baroda, as a pure batter. She began training under Santosh Chaugule, who became her long-time personal coach and whom she credits with strengthening her basics. In 2013 she would cross paths with former India Women captain and coach Purnima Rau, who was the BCA senior women's coach at the time. "She told me that I had the potential to play for India in the future," says Bhatia. "In a way, she was the one to sow the seeds of my India dream in my head."
The same year she broke into the Baroda senior T20 side. Over the next three seasons she made it into the senior one-day side and the U-23 and senior zonal teams. Among the highlights of her domestic career, she counts her two fifties in the inter-zonal senior three-day tournament in 2017. That year was to prove a pivotal one for Bhatia.
"I did well in my 12th board exams, in 2017, scoring 89% in science stream," she says, "but I felt I had more inclination towards cricket, so I told my parents I wanted to become a cricketer, not a doctor."
A passion for sport runs in the Bhatia family. Her father, an executive engineer in a public-sector company, and sister, who was selected for the Baroda U-19 cricket squad in 2011 but eventually opted for a career in medicine, are both, like Bhatia, black belts in karate. Her mother, Garima, is a retired senior bank manager.
"My parents agreed, seeing my potential, because West Zone had won the national championship that year and I was their captain. So they fully supported me. 'No problem, you should pursue whatever brings you happiness,' they said."
She was studying science, which often did not leave much time for cricket training, so she switched to humanities. "That's how my transformation towards where I am at today started in a significant way. I took up online BA [Bachelor of Arts] general, so I got a lot of time to concentrate on my cricket. I started practising twice a day and began doing running activities and gymming in the mornings. The entire day would be focused around cricket."
Bhatia remembers various relatives, near and distant alike, telling her family they had made a mistake in letting her make cricket her primary focus. "What are you doing? You know she's so good in studies and there is no future in women's cricket," she remembers people saying.
"The 2017 Women's World Cup happened in June-July, around the same time I started investing more time and energy solely on cricket. India had a memorable campaign and suddenly you could see people looking at [women's cricket in India] differently," she says.
The heartbreak of India's defeat in the final of that tournament still lingers, she says. "Dil bhaari ho gaya tha [My heart was heavy]. Things would have changed for the better so much more if India won that World Cup. Like, there may have been a Women's IPL by now, more games, better pay for domestic players…
"I remember being very emotional after the loss. It changed me," she says. "I wanted that next time whenever the team goes on the field, I also should be a part of the team to try and help them win the World Cup."
When the realisation dawns on her that that dream is very close to becoming a reality now, five years on, disbelief seems to take over. It's hard to tell if the screen has frozen at her end or not until Bhatia breaks the quiet with a confession. "It does feel a little like a dream, this shift that's happened in just one year [since that South Africa series]."
More believes Bhatia's resilience is one of the traits that could take her places. "I think she has great potential to do well for India for at least ten to 12 years, given she is only 21," he says. "And she has what it takes to do well both as a batter and wicketkeeper. She was keeping to Hardik and Krunal in Baroda and batting against them and got hit as well at times in the chest and leg facing the fast bowlers. But she never gave up. She's a very gutsy girl."
Bhatia is hopeful she can bank on her positive outlook to tide over challenges on the field and off it. She says the ups and downs of top-flight sport that she has experienced in the recent past will only serve to strengthen her when the stakes are high and the chips down.
"I want to improve with each tournament that comes my way," she says. "The World Cup is the most important one. Whenever I look back on my journey, it feels real because I know I have put in a lot of hard work in coming this far and worked harder instead of feeling bogged down by disappointments. My journey has just started and I want to do more in the future. I am looking forward to what's in store for me."