It is tough, isn’t it. Being a fringe player at the highest level. Being stereotyped into a red-ball specialist when there is nothing wrong in wanting to engage with the glitz of shorter formats. Even Cheteshwar Pujara, an established figure at the Test level, has been a part of various IPL franchises. Heck, in the playing XI even.
It is tough spending the first seven matches of the season on the bench. You can fall into a sense that this might not be your season. It is tough to get noticed in a batting line-up comprising Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Glenn Maxwell. Yes, Devdutt Padikkal has made it to the Indian team by showing his mettle for Royal Challengers Bangalore but the viewpoint of a middle-order batsman is different.
It is a tougher position to bat in this format. Plus, with other renowned names around you, the openers are setting up the game but not for you. You are the stepney. Remember the Subramaniam Badrinath role from the initial years of Chennai Super Kings. If the team is in trouble, you are in early. You have to rescue the side. If the team has a good start, you bat lower in the order. Sometimes you won’t even get to bat. It is tough to adjust in such a role because you are not doing one thing every game. You are answering to different situations and this format is volatile.
On Friday (October 8), Kona Srikar Bharat stood above all these barriers to capture the headlines. There was Avesh Khan at the bowling end, a firm contender of the Emerging Player of the Year award. At the non-striker’s end, there was the Glenn Maxwell juggernaut, scoring his sixth IPL fifty this season. But the moment Bharat sailed the last ball six past long-on to seal the deal, he surpassed all the preternatural powers to etch his name in RCB’s folklore.
Bharat rekindled memories of Arun Karthik’s last ball six to take Bangalore over the line in a Champions League fixture in 2011. Co-incidentally, both are wicketkeepers. Fans also revisited Dinesh Karthik’s brilliance in the Nidahas Trophy final. Another wicketkeeper.
Yet among all these memorable performances, Bharat’s effort stands out as an illuminating light of RCB’s resurgence. It was not just a cameo, but the foundation on which RCB built their comeback in this contest.
He walked out to bat in the first over itself, when Padikkal departed for a duck. It soon became 6 for two in 2.1 overs. Bharat steadied the innings with AB de Villiers. The budding stages of his partnership with Maxwell can create the perception that the Australian did most of the scoring but that was again down to Bharat’s immaculate innings building.
Bharat scored 26 runs off the 10 balls he faced against spin. Maxwell took down the pacers, striking them at 165 for his 38 runs. The duo worked hand in hand, like Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis have paired up top for Chennai - one hits pace and the other goes for spin. Maxwell’s post-match tweet speaks about the partnership itself.
The Australian had the option of retaining the strike knowing a six would be required off the last ball. But he ran the second on the misfield, trusting his partner to do the job. Bharat was up to the task.
The one thing that has worked in Bharat’s favor is deepening batting resources in the RCB line-up. Maxwell’s arrival and consistency at number four has helped RCB split up Kohli and de Villiers further in the batting order. They are comfortable with de Villiers at five while Kohli has moved up to open, with an eye at the T20 World Cup preparations. This unprecedented situation opened up the number three slot. After musical chairs between a number of batters, Bharat is the one who seized it.
RCB’s composition suggests it was a transitioning role, to hand the baton from the Indian opening duo to the overseas contingent in the middle. Hence, they tried Daniel Christian at number three, albeit without any returns. Bharat made that position his own with his conventional style. He averages 56.7 at a strike-rate of 130.8, both comfortably the highest among all the batters RCB have tried at three.
Bharat’s selection as the wicket-keeping-batsman raised a few eyebrows. It came at the expense of Mohammad Azharuddeen, a more suited white-ball player. However, Bharat had left an impression in the warm-up game before the season resumption, scoring a 47-ball 95 in response to a target of 214. The knock paved the way for his IPL debut.
It was also a sign of the evolution in his game. From 2014 to the 2018/19 season, Bharat averaged only 12.5 along with a strike-rate of 83.5 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, India’s domestic T20 tournament. In the last two seasons, he averaged 27.5, soaring his strike-rate to 142.9.
On his debut, against Kolkata in RCB’s first match of the UAE leg, he was out for 16, trying to pick the run-rate up, getting caught in the deep. His dismissal proved to be the tipping of the dominoes. RCB collapsed from 51 for three to 92 all out.
He corrected the execution of his attacking strokes in the upcoming matches, scoring 32 off 24 against Mumbai and 44 off 35 against Rajasthan. The knock against Mumbai mitigated the pressure on Kohli who has slowed down post Powerplay this season. “KS came out and played some amazing shots. He took the pressure off me”, said the skipper.
The Andhra batsman broke into the domestic circuit in 2012. At the level that would provide him the television coverage in the current television era - IPL and international cricket - he was on the fringes for eight years.
Bharat’s maiden IPL season was way back in 2015. Delhi Daredevils (now Capitals) signed him at INR 10 lakh a fortnight after he became the first wicketkeeper to notch up a triple hundred in the Ranji Trophy. But Bharat did not get a game. Since then, he has been a part of the national squad a number of times, but always as an injury cover or a travelling reserve. Hence, he was obscure to a majority of the fan base in India. The question, “Who is KS Bharat?” was irrefutable whenever BCCI would tweet about his inclusion in the squad.
Yesterday was the first time Bharat batted over 50 balls in a T20 innings. He buried the prospects of that question for good. And how, a last ball six to clinch a win, the most alpha approach to soar to glory. He has buried the stereotype of being a red-ball specialist. He has ensured he won’t be a fringe player anymore.
The fact that he transformed an inconsequential game into an unforgettable result for his team - the 100th IPL win for RCB - is a pleasant gift that IPL did not expect.
Fun fact: Bharat was yet to play domestic cricket when Arun Karthik’s last ball six made headlines in 2011. The bowler on that occasion was Daniel Christian, Bharat’s teammate in IPL 2021. This certainly would have been discussed in the dressing room amidst the celebrations last night.