Punjab Kings and Vidarbha wicketkeeper-batter Jitesh Sharma has been in the spotlight this season for his stylish shot-making and his ability to take his team over the line at the death. His agility behind the stumps has also seen him retain his wicketkeeper position, though he did not start as one.
But this isn’t Jitesh’s first year in the IPL; he was part of the title-winning Mumbai Indians squad in 2017 though he didn’t play. Here he speaks about his late start, his breakthrough year, and finding an unusual path into cricket.
You’re one of IPL 2022’s breakout stars of the season, but you have been part of the tournament in 2017 as well. Where have you been for the past five years?
Obviously in my career there have been ups and downs. In 2017, I was with Mumbai Indians when they won the tenth season. I didn’t get a chance then because Jos Buttler, Nicholas Pooran and Parthiv Patel were there. But Mumbai were clear to me that I was the back-up Indian wicketkeeper in the side. I totally understood, because all teams want to win. But it was a chance to learn from Buttler, since I was an opening batter at the time. I would look up to him, notice the way he bats and how calm he stays while batting. I still admire him a lot.
Then I came back to domestic cricket and even though I was performing well, I wasn’t getting an IPL spot. Well, every team has a different demand. Maybe I wasn’t fitting in, or maybe this was God’s plan.
You were picked up at a base price of Rs 20 lakh (US$ 26,600 approx) at the auction by a team that had Jonny Bairstow and Bhanuka Rajapaksa as wicketkeeper options. Did you think, “There goes my season”?
They are top-order batters, I am a middle-order batter, and that’s why we are not competing for a spot. Punjab wanted an Indian middle-order batsman.
I am actually okay not keeping, but I got a hamstring injury midway through a game against Gujarat Titans and therefore they asked me to keep. The team was impressed with me as a wicketkeeper and then Jonny [Bairstow] said that I should continue keeping.
Franchises always have to see the bigger picture because they need back-ups. They look at me as a middle-order batter and a wicketkeeper.
Is there anything you did in the last 12-24 months that made teams look at you as a viable first-team option?
My consistent performances have always kept me in the reckoning, since I have been scoring in corporate tournaments and the Vijay Hazare Trophy. But this year I made a huge impact in the middle order, and it was the first time I was playing properly in that position – I hit 18 sixes [at a strike rate of 235], the most in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in the season.
You’re playing the same role here. You faced only 97 balls in the seven innings you’ve played for Punjab Kings, but your strike rate of 167 has helped the team in crucial situations. Do you want to start making your way back up the order?
As you said, I am a match-winner. I am happy that I am making a difference in the match. If I can make 20 and get a win instead of scoring 60, I am happier, because that responsibility of finishing is huge and not everyone has the capability to pull it off.
What is your batting mantra?
Basically, the position in which I bat is a situation-dependent one. The middle order is not an easy place to walk in and score boundaries. You have to be flexible. If I come in in the 19th over, I need to start hitting from the top. If I come in the tenth over, then I have to play long. That’s what it boils down to.
Who do you discuss cricket with the most?
Nobody, really. I don’t have a personal coach like most others. I talk cricket with my friends. But I’ve always admired and been close to Ambati Rayudu. I love his batting. The way he plays is so easy.
Ambati had come to play for Vidarbha for one year. It was there that he taught me a lot, changed my technique a little bit. The way he looks at the game, the way he handles his cricket is nice, and I’ve picked it up from him.
Most of the breakout stars of this year’s IPL are very young. But you made your senior cricket debut at age 20 and now you’re making heads turn at 28. What are your thoughts on getting a late start to your IPL career?
Franchise cricket is a kind of business. It’s about who can give you profit. It doesn’t matter if it is coming from a 20-year-old boy or a 28-year-old man. If a 20-year-old is doing the same, then so be it. If a 40-year-old also makes them win, a team doesn’t bother [about age]. That’s the reality.
How do you approach the game? A 20-year old will not have the baggage that comes with experience for a 28-year-old.
I am totally chill because I have that seven-year experience. The 20-year-olds don’t have that. They may be more fearless, but knowing what shot to play at what point of the game comes with experience. I know my areas, how to run the game, that’s the difference. They have lots of scope to improve, which is a positive, but my positive is that I have the experience to enhance my performance.
When I first came to the camp, Anil Kumble sir spoke to me. He told me I was likely for the playing XI. What I did was focus on my fitness, diet and sleep. I have been taking every session as a chance to give 100%.
…and then came your debut, against Chennai Super Kings, after six years of waiting. Do you remember how it all played out?
A few sessions into our Punjab Kings camp, Anil sir said he found my net practice impressive. He told me to always be ready, and made it clear that my role is to bat around Nos. 5 and 6, and that I needed to prepare like that.
In practice games I was given the opportunity to play differently – one game attacking and another slightly defensive – so I probably showed I have both temperaments. And when Raj Bawa did not perform well for a few days – he was unlucky – Anil sir came to me and said, “Jitesh, your wait is over now. You are going to get your chance. I know you’ve been hungry for your chance for a long time.”
Everyone knew I was hungry because of how I was approaching my preparation and practice in training sessions. I was excited but also well prepared. My confidence was backed by my preparation. At match time, everyone wished me good luck. They told me it didn’t matter how I got out, and that I would be backed.
You have a unique reason for playing cricket. Can you share the story?
I actually wanted to go into the armed forces. In Maharashtra school cricket, you get 4% grace in army tests if you play state cricket. I joined my school team because they played around the state level. I decided I’ll give a trial, and that’s how I started playing the sport. My dad never questioned me, and funnily enough my mother still doesn’t know that I am playing at a level like the IPL. None of my cricket friends from those days play the sport – they all have normal jobs now.
Somehow cricket has followed me. There were state trials once, for the BCCI U-16 tournament, and I scored runs there. But even then I had the air force as my first option, and I told my father that again. He agreed with my ambition but just asked me to keep playing cricket to keep my fitness levels up. Next year I wanted to keep playing so I went for U-19 trials, and once I got selected there too, I thought, “I can make something out of this cricket.”
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