Keeping skills, work ethic behind Bharat's rise
Having been back-up to Rishabh Pant for the past year, the 29-year-old from Andhra is ready to grab his opportunity.
For the past 12 months, KS Bharat has been doing what many of his predecessors had to do: diligently wait for his turn to don the gloves for India. By its intrinsic nature, the wicketkeeper’s role demands patience and adherence to status quo; there’s space for only one in a playing eleven and it usually takes a series of poor performances for an incumbent to be dislodged.
Bharat has become a regular member of the India Test squad since Wriddhiman Saha was phased out in early 2022, but Rishabh Pant’s match-winning exploits mean that the 29-year-old from Andhra has had to be content with biding time as a backup.
With Pant out of action though after a car accident in December, a window of opportunity has opened up for Bharat to finally make his Test debut in the series against Australia starting February 9. There’s also Ishan Kishan in the reckoning — he is in a similar mould to Pant — but if India’s recent selections are anything to go by, Bharat may get first crack simply because he has been in the squad as the second wicketkeeper for all this time.
“It will be a proud and happy moment for me (if he makes his debut in Nagpur),” said his coach J Krishna Rao. “He’s been waiting very patiently. He’s always doing his routines. Every day, he has been preparing for this moment. His preparation never comes down. He strongly believes in getting the controllables right. His work ethic and preparation have got him this far.”
Bharat has been building up to this moment perhaps since July 2018, the first time he represented India A in the longer format. Over the past five years, he has gone on to establish himself as an India A regular. By a quirk of fate, he also came on as a substitute for an injured Saha during a Test against New Zealand in Kanpur in 2021, snaffling three catches and making a solid impression with his tidy glovework against spin.
It is Bharat’s skill behind the stumps – his batting average in first-class cricket is a modest 37.95 – that has earned him the opportunity to be within the confines of the Indian dressing room. “Saha ranks very high as a keeper. Bharat has the same standards. His glovework, positioning and the balance are good. I rate those who keep up to the stumps. You will know the skill only then,” said Rao, who has been coaching Bharat since the age of eight. “Keeping to fast bowlers is not that challenging, unless it is England where there’s lateral movement. In the subcontinent, it is very difficult to keep to spinners. After Saha, Bharat is one of the best keepers in the country. He has got the potential to reach Saha’s level.”
It wasn’t until Bharat was 19 that he began keeping wickets for his state regularly. But Rao was convinced about Bharat’s keeping ability well before that. “He was 12 or 13 when I asked him whether he would be interested in taking the keeping gloves. His ball sense and reflexes made me ask him. He immediately said yes,” Rao recalled.
Though Bharat’s batting record doesn’t infuse tremendous confidence, he has the characteristics to get stuck in and grind it out under pressure. Take his maiden century for India A against Australia A in 2018, when he came in at No 6 with his team 87 runs behind the visitors’ first-innings total and responded with 106 off 186 deliveries.
“In the opportunities he has got for India A, he has performed under pressure. Whenever there is pressure, he rises to the fore. He can grind out runs in tough situations. It is his habit. It doesn’t take long for players to adapt now. For Bharat, India A, IPL and being in the Indian dressing room have helped him adapt to the team dynamics.”