KS Bharat: the keeper knocking on destiny's door

KS Bharat drives through the covers Andhra Cricket Association

Until he was 19, the only reason KS Bharat wore the wicketkeeping gloves was because he got bored during his cricket summer camps. For about a month every year as a teenager, Bharat would pick up the gloves to keep himself entertained, before going back to being a "batsman and fielder".

"I used to do it in practice, but never kept in any state team till I was 19. Not even one over. I played for the state team for nearly ten years, but my last year, in the [Under] 19s, is when I started. I kept in two games - one full match and one in the second innings. That is when I came into Ranji cricket. There was a need for a keeper who could bat, so my association supported me," Bharat says during a chat in Bengaluru, where he is playing for India A in the unofficial Test series against Australia A.

It has been five years since his first-class debut for Andhra, a season during which he only kept in one full Ranji Trophy match for them. But, since then, Bharat has become their frontline wicketkeeper, and on two occasions has been the wicketkeeper with the most dismissals in the Ranji Trophy season.

The most recent instance of that was during the 2017-18 season, when he effected 24 dismissals in six matches (23 catches and a stumping), ahead of CM Gautam, who also had 24 dismissals but in eight matches. It is why Bharat has been India A's designated wicketkeeper during their last three series, only missing games when Rishabh Pant was being readied for the England series. Given India A's penchant for rotation, this is a feat in itself.

It also suggests Bharat could well be India's second wicketkeeper when they tour Australia for the Test series in December this year.

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The poor handling of Wriddhiman Saha's various injuries this season has put Indian cricket in a crisis it thought it was prepared for, but one that, at the end of their second away series of the year, they have barely been able to address with conviction.

Such was the confusion that, even now, it is hard to tell how long India's best wicketkeeper will be on the sidelines, with all recovery timelines still coming in measures of minimum time frames. According to most estimates, Saha isn't likely to make the Australia tour. If he does, it will be with no match practice in the only format he plays at the international level.

The consequence is a series of swaps that began on the tour of South Africa in January when Saha last played.

The first back-up man was Parthiv Patel, whose sudden push back into overseas international cricket featured struggles against the moving ball both in front of and behind the stumps. It set the tone early in the season for India: their best-ever seam bowling attack is still finding unreliable support from the men who are supposed to grab the edges they produce.

Dinesh Karthik's return to Tests was highly anticipated, but his struggles mirrored those of Parthiv, as he too looked out of sorts with both bat and gloves.

"He would field with the older boys. That's when we saw his movements - he catches the ball very softly, but strongly. He had good reflexes, hand-eye coordination, a lot of ball-sense. So why not wicketkeeping?" Krishna Rao, Bharat's childhood coach

At the moment, Pant has the job, and, if for nothing else than the fact that he's 20 years old and has a big learning curve ahead, he has inspired more confidence than those that came before him. But the grim truth is that he is India's fourth wicketkeeper over nine Tests and with only 25 first-class games in his career, clearly not someone who was groomed to be in the Test team this quickly.

Bharat's regular appearances for India A and in various other representational squads suggest that had things not unravelled this quickly on the wicketkeeping front, he may have been ahead of Pant in the pecking order for red-ball cricket. What may have gone Pant's way is his relative experience under pressure and his exciting batting potential, which has been tested against quality bowling thanks to the IPL.

Otherwise, if the words of men who know him and a few days of observing him are anything to go by, Bharat is the better equipped keeper for the longest format.

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Bharat's first-class career consists of two extraordinary moments.

The first one was when he brought up his triple-century against Goa in 2015, which at the time was the first instance of an Andhra batsman making a 200-plus score. He was also the only wicketkeeper to make a triple-hundred in Ranji cricket.

Later in 2015 came the second moment, a backhanded no-look stumping of Punjab's Jiwanjot Singh, who had jumped down the track and managed to deflect the ball towards slip off his pad, but could escape neither Bharat's quick hands nor his nonchalant strut afterwards.

In that stumping, Bharat made use of all the skills that Krishna Rao, head coach at the Centre of Excellence in Visakhapatnam, had spotted during his days in junior state cricket. It was Rao who saw the potential wicketkeeper in a restless teenager.

"In Vishakapatnam, we had nets every evening. First-class cricketers, U-23s, U-22s, U-19s - everybody used to come. He would field with the older boys. That's when we saw his movements - that he catches the ball very softly, but strongly. I thought he had good reflexes and good hand-eye coordination, and a lot of ball-sense. So why not put him in wicketkeeping? That's how we pushed towards that job," Rao says.

It was restlessness that had led Bharat to cricket in the first place. As a boisterous child running about the neighbourhood in his hometown of Vishakapatnam, playing cricket on the terraces and just about anywhere else, Bharat admits he was a handful.

"It took a lot of effort for my parents to stop my mischief at home," says Bharat. "I had the passion for cricket from when I was 4-5 years old as far as I can remember. They found that I like this game and my dad supported my playing it. He started taking me to the right places."

One of those places was an academy at the naval grounds, not far away from the naval dockyards where his father worked, which was at the other end of the city from his school. After school, Bharat would hop onto a bus, wave out to his mother who would wait with his kit at a bus stop along the way, and the two would get to the nets everyday.


From that modest routine, Bharat started making his way up in the system quite quickly, breaking into the U-13 state team at the age of ten and never looking back. He was part of junior teams constantly, barring one year in the middle when he nearly quit the game after being dropped from the U-16 side. He was a "good student", he says, and there was a choice. But like at many points during his career, Rao stepped in.

"There was one phase, during the transformation into U-19s, he didn't look very confident and he wasn't getting many runs. One match, Bharat had failed and on the way home with his father, they got to discussing his performances and had some kind of an argument," Rao recalls. "I don't know what happened, but his father told him to get off and drove away angrily. My younger brother used to watch these matches when I couldn't make it. On his way back, he spotted Bharat and drove him home."

Rao called Bharat's father, and told him to go easy on the youngster and let him make mistakes. It took a couple of years for Bharat to discover the details of what was spoken.

"They had a talk for a few hours, and my dad didn't exactly tell me what they'd discussed. A few years later I made my first-class debut. That's when my dad told me about what Krishna sir had said: he had assured him that I'll be playing Ranji in a couple of years," Bharat says.

This relationship with Rao has been one of the most crucial elements of Bharat's cricket, and he doesn't understate it. At many points, he says, he had either no faith in himself or in Rao's prescient words about him being part of the Ranji Trophy - that too as a wicketkeeper.

"He told me that there'll be a time when India will hunt for wicketkeepers, and I'll be in that race. I've never believed my coach, to be honest. But it was nice to hear and I agreed reluctantly and continued, I could get on with the game and skip some college in the process! [Then] I started taking the game seriously, I started respecting the [wicketkeeping] gloves. I never believed that with wicketkeeping, I can come so far. Whatever he has told me is actually coming true. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't be having this chat."

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Whatever the contribution was in terms of mental strength and foresight, the biggest task was still making sure that someone could pick up wicketkeeping effectively at that age. Few jobs are harder in cricket, and by the age of 18 or 19 the body has already approached what will more or less be its peak in terms of height - a major factor in flexibility and mobility - making the transformation from fielder to keeper all the more difficult. Throw batting into it, and the challenge intensifies.

Rao knew Bharat had what he called the "X-factor", in that he had good lateral movement and agility from years of being the best close-in fielder in the state. But there were still some doubts.

"I once asked [former India keeper] Saba Karim, if it is better if a keeper is shorter. Saba bhai said that it's just a myth," Rao says. "If you look at modern cricket, he said back then, all wicketkeepers are tall guys. Modern cricket is a tall man's game. Adam Gilchrist, Ridley Jacobs - he gave me a couple of examples. In my mind, tall wicketkeepers couldn't last long, but that was a myth. Saba told me it's not that way.

"If you look at it like that, Bharat is quite tall, but he is a very quick mover. His arms are very quick, the way he picks the bails off the stumps. Bohut pyaar se nikalta hai [He removes the bails very gently]."

It's a good way to describe it. During the first day of the second match against Australia A in Alur, Bharat was provided the opportunity to display this ability. Travis Head was beaten in flight by Kuldeep Yadav after stepping down, but Bharat was still in his crouch as the ball landed. There was still a long way for it to travel after pitching, and he did the basic tenet right - getting up with the ball - and this kept him in good shape despite the batsman being well outside the crease, something that can make keepers eager and their hands harder. Once the ball got to Bharat, Head could barely turn around before the bails were off.

In a lot of ways, Bharat appears the more natural successor to Saha. He is more fluid on his feet than Pant, whose keeping in England so far has been heavily reliant on his hand-eye coordination and who has often been caught heavy-footed by committing to the angle too early.

In England for India A in July, Bharat conceded six byes in the one game he played, whereas Pant conceded 42 in two games. Even with a conservative lens, given that none of these games were telecast and it was a different bowling attack all together, those numbers are striking. Pant's strengths are his athleticism and his ability to move on from mistakes, but there is a lack of experience. After all, he is about five years younger than Bharat and only into his third first-class season.

In the Alur game, Bharat did drop two catches against spin in back-to-back overs. With a lack of replays, it was hard to tell what went wrong in those cases. But they were the only aberrations in an innings of 109 overs where he didn't concede a single bye.

As someone who didn't have specialist wicketkeeping training for most of his career, Bharat's immediate priority when he started taking the gloves was to let nothing go past him. It's a lesson that he picked up from watching MSK Prasad, an Andhra cricketing legend who served as director of the association, and is now the chairman of selectors for the national team.

"MSK anna is someone who spoke to me regarding how things work. To my luck, Krishna Rao worked with him, so whatever MSK anna told him [about keeping], he used to tell me. How he would work, how he would take catches, that sort of thing. He told me he was a gem of a keeper and wouldn't allow even a single ball to pass. And told me of how he used to adjust to the pitch."

Bharat's keeping has been helped by regular stints in league cricket in Tamil Nadu, where invariably all work is against spinners on turning pitches. With the contrast that the bouncy wickets at home provide, he has gone through diverse tests.

"I've made my lower body strong and I can hold my shape while getting up with the ball, which is very important for a keeper. I rate a keeper on how well he does against spin," he says. "Only if you can hold your weight, only if you hold your position, you can be good against spinners.

"So I've worked a lot on the Katchet board, one-bounce, holding the shape, getting a feel of it. It's in my subconscious - with the ball pitching, I know how and when to get up and what position to be in. I've done a lot of work on my basic getting up. Lots of keepers tend to get up early."

"I've made my lower body strong and I can hold my shape while getting up with the ball, which is very important for a keeper. I rate a keeper on how well he does against spin" KS Bharat

Starting off as a ball-stopper at the Under-19s, he has come through keeping in 50-overs, then 90, and has slowly progressed into a full-time wicketkeeper who opens the batting. When he made his triple-hundred, he had opened the innings, batted 504 minutes, and returned to take eight catches. It was a truly extraordinary moment when he reached that milestone because till about the time he took the keeping gloves, he wasn't even an opening batsman. That match against Goa was the coming together of two of his most newly-acquired skills, both at domestic level.

Should he break into the Indian team, Bharat will almost definitely bat in the lower-middle order and a successful past with shape-shifting will hold him in good stead. But there has been a slip-up as far as batting goes - and the Indian team is big on batting - in that Bharat hadn't made a first-class hundred in nearly three years until his hundred on the third day in Alur. Having been among the top run-getters in his early seasons, his average now sits in the region of 35.

In the first unofficial Test against Australia A, Bharat came in on a crumbling pitch in the fourth innings and was out third ball, looking to pull as India A were in the middle of a collapse. As an attacking batsman who is jumping about in the order, his batting needs to get tighter if that international cap is to come. His hundred in Alur, the innings that followed the Bengaluru failure, was considerably tighter; he survived an anxious early period before opening up and making India A's first hundred of the series, almost entirely in the company of the bowlers.

"Do I believe [I can play for India]? Yes. I'm capable of playing for India. Whether the selectors think of me or what others think of me, about how long I haven't scored a hundred - those things don't matter," Bharat says on being asked about his batting. He believes he has made important contributions, and they needn't all be hundreds.

"I started trying too hard. Instead of enjoying the game, I became a little performance-oriented. I was always looking for a hundred. Anything less than hundred was a failure for me. I've scored around 17 fifties, so [I've contributed with the bat but] my conversion rate has come down.

"I'm blessed to be a two-dimensional player. There'll be 6-7 batters, and not all can have a good day. But there's only one keeper. If you've failed to have a good day with the bat and you keep thinking about it, then you're letting your team down. So I don't want that to happen. I allow myself to have a bad day. It's okay."

It's this self-awareness and honesty that Rao will later tell me are Bharat's best traits. But they're also the words of someone who knows he is on the brink.

"I would love for Rishabh to perform, DK anna to perform. I want to perform more and break in. I don't want them to fail and then fit into their shoes. If they get a hundred, I'd like to get 150. That's how I want it to be. I'm not waiting for someone to fail there and get my chance."

That is the healthiest way to approach the situation. But if we go by how his career has proceeded so far, then one man's words are vital.

"When I was younger," Rao says, "[though] I didn't see a lot of him but I remember [Syed] Kirmani was rated for his glove work. The way he collected the balls. We saw Kiran More, Nayan Mongia, we rate both of them as people with very good glove work. After that, MSK. After that, some of the best glove work I've seen is by this guy, Bharat. I am sure he will make his India debut soon."

Now we wait.