How a coach's punt, scorching summers and damp pitches gave India a finisher for future
India don't have a dearth of wicketkeeper-batters currently. In Ishan Kishan. Sanju Samson, KL Rahul, and Rishabh Pant, India have an array of players ready to take the gloves in white-ball formats. But where Jitesh's USP comes in, is his preferred batting slot.
"Aaj se tu hamara middle-order batsman... (From today, you are our middle-order batsman)..." Jitesh Sharma didn't know how to react to coach Pritam Gandhe's words. It didn't come as a bolt from the blue as he had been practising differently for the last few days but to start playing the role of a finisher in T20s after opening the batting for Vidarbha for seven seasons, was never going to be an easy task.
Jitesh took up the challenge, blindly trusting Gandhe's judgement. The veteran of 100 first-class matches and the then-Vidharbha coach had taken a calculative risk based on a few factors - Nagpur's scorching summers, an under-performing Vidarbha middle-order and damp practice pitches. They combined to give a nitro boost to Jitesh Sharma's career, putting him on a much more difficult but less-crowded path to glory.
"That time our middle-order was not performing that well in Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s. Gandhe sir told me, 'Tu upar jake jo 15-20 ball mein 30 run bana raha hai, wahi niche banayega toh team ke lie aur help hogi.' I was asked to bat in the middle-order in one of the practice matches," Jitesh told Hindustan Times.
The weather conditions and the practice timing also played a major role in the change of course. "The Nagpur summers are extremely uncomfortable. You can't practice after 11 am due to the high temperatures, and humidity. So our practice session used to start at 6 am. But it was difficult to bat in the morning for me as an opener as the pitches used to be damp. I couldn't hit the ball as cleanly as I would have liked to. One day I swapped positions with the middle-order batters and hit a few sixes," Jitesh said.
The move did wonders for both Jitesh and Vidarbha. The former's strike rate saw a never-before upward curve and the team's total started to touch 180 from the dwindling 160s. The right-handed wicketkeeper-batter smashed back-to-back half-centuries playing as a finisher. He ended the season with 19 sixes - the most in Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s in 2021-22 - in 7 innings and was immediately rewarded with an IPL contract by the Punjab Kings.
Also read: ‘I wasn't in Ranji team, was preparing for IPL. Chetan sir called and said I’ve been picked for India': Jitesh Sharma
Opener Jitesh Sharma had been a part of the IPL before with Mumbai Indians but he couldn't break into the XI in 2017. Five years later, the finisher Jitesh not only got his IPL cap but also turned out to be his team's go-to finisher as the season progressed, scoring at a strike rate of 163 in his first year.
His exploits continued in domestic cricket. He almost single-handedly took Vidarbha to the knockout stages of the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s with match-winning contributions. In the semifinal against Mumbai, he tried his level best by scoring 46 off 24 balls that included three sixes in the last over, but wasn't able to take his side to the final.
His 13 sixes in 10 matches, however, caught the eye of the selection committee. The 29-year-old earned his maiden India call-up as the replacement of injured Sanju Samson for the remaining two T20Is against Sri Lanka. That it wasn't a fluke was proven when he was retained for the New Zealand T20Is set to begin on January 27.
"...Jitesh Sharma in the T20 format, he has the ability to bat at a very good pace as he’s shown in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and the IPL,” said India head coach Rahul Dravid while talking about the pool of wicketkeepers India have.
'Competition not a worry'
"I know my role. The position I bat in, is pretty obvious that I have to play attacking cricket," said Jitesh.
India don't have a dearth of wicketkeeper-batters currently. In Ishan Kishan. Sanju Samson, KL Rahul, and Rishabh Pant, India have an array of players ready to take the gloves in white-ball formats. But where Jitesh's USP comes in, is his preferred batting slot. Almost everyone on the list are top-order batters. Although Rishabh Pant has mostly batted in the middle in all forms, his not-so-impressive T20I numbers have forced India to also try him out as an opener with not much success.
That, however, doesn't guarantee Jitesh a spot in the XI. Chances are high, he might not even get a game against New Zealand as Ishan Kishan will take the gloves for starters but that doesn't worry the Amaravati-born lad.
"I always look at growing as a professional, it doesn't matter whether I get a chance or not. I want to be ready for everything, be it an IPL match, a local match or a Syed Mushtaq Ali game. If I try to think that I have to outdo them (Kishan, Pant, Samson and Rahul) then I might make mistakes. Instead, I focus on consistency. If I do ordinary things regularly, then it will become extraordinary. More than just scoring runs, I want to make a difference in winning and losing. Even if I score 20 runs, those runs should help my team win," he said.
Special match-simulation training
Strong self-belief and trust in building a thorough process helped Jitesh to completely transform his batting approach. He prepares himself for every scenario. Side-arm specialist Varun Palandurkar, who plays in various T20 leagues in Maharashtra at the club level, helps Jitesh in preparing for match situations.
"I create scenarios while practising. In case of early wickets, I give myself 30 balls and a target of 40 runs minimum. But I can't get out. If I'm out even once during that period then I don't bat in the session. This helps me to be in a match situation. I focus more on boundaries and rotating the strike.
"If I come in to bat with say 8 overs remaining I give myself 18 balls to score 30 at least. For that, I target two sixes, the rest can be through singles and a boundary here and there.
"If I come in to bat with say only 3-4 overs remaining then I target boundaries from ball 1 but don't attempt to hit a six straightaway. The moment I connect a couple from the middle, then I start aiming for sixes. I always try to maintain a combination of boundaries and sixes. If I only go for sixes then I might miss out on the gaps in the field to get four runs. I go all-out for sixes in the last two overs," he said.