There are few players on the domestic circuit in India with the depth of experience that Rajat Bhatia has. Bhatia made his debut in 1999 and now at the age of 39, with 111 first-class matches under his belt, Bhatia continues his love affair with the game. In this year’s Ranji Trophy, the all-rounder has led Uttarakhand to the cusp of qualifying for the knockout stages in their debut year. Bhatia has led from the front, scoring 616 runs at an incredible average of 205.33, with three unbeaten innings to his name.
It has been nothing less than a fairytale for the veteran who missed last year’s domestic season and has often been plagued by injuries in his career. In this freewheeling interview with Cricketnext, Bhatia reflects on Uttarakhand’s performance, the standard of domestic cricket in the country, the reasons for his home team Delhi’s decline and also about a new skill he has added to his repertoire during his time off the game.
What do you feel about Uttarakhand’s performance this year? Has it come as a surprise considering how easy it has been for the side making its debut in first-class cricket?
Honestly, I am not a surprised at all. When the season was about to start, I was personally present during the trials and saw the kind of talent that was there. My first brush with cricket in Uttarakhand came in 2015, when I played in the Uttarakhand Premier League. These guys had a lot to offer skillwise and just needed some polishing. They hadn’t played much red-ball cricket but that was something they were looking forward to and have done extremely well in adapting.
What has been the biggest challenge in leading a side like Uttarakhand?
I have led teams before so that helped me. The biggest challenge I feel was the first List A game against Bihar in Vijay Hazare trophy. We never had a net session on turf before the game. We didn’t play a single game and decided to reach Baroda for some match practice, which we didn’t get. In the first game we played, I didn’t know where to bat or who batted in which position. Same with the bowlers, but I knew the kind of talent these guys had so was never discouraged.
How did you go about building the side after that?
I started by studying other teams. I knew our pace attack was better than most of the other teams. I kept that in mind and we planned accordingly. We were lucky that some of the matches shifted to the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Dehradun, which has a green track. Also, if you see, we have kept our final 15 the same throughout the season. I never wanted to chop and change as it was important for the guys to feel secure. Luckily, that has worked and its one of the reasons why the team did so well.
With the team on cusp of entering the knockouts, where you will be up against the big guns, how do you prepare for that?
See, right now we are focussing on the game against Mizoram and taking six points. We are lucky that we will be playing in Dehradun, so we will be backing ourselves. But only after that can we think about the knockouts. Right now, we don’t even know who our opponents will be, so we need to take it one step at a time, starting with the game against Mizoram.
What is the motivation for you to keep playing in domestic cricket, considering how successful a domestic career you have had?
I have no motivation in playing for country now and I honestly left that behind me a long time back. I had a lot of issues with injuries throughout my career, so last year I skipped the domestic season and wanted to do something different. That’s when I did a course on Human Biomechanics which was all about training. That has inspired me to keep playing, for the whole year I worked on my body and wanted to see how fit I was to play Ranji Trophy. I will continue working on it and will carry on once I am done playing.
That sounds interesting, could you tell us a bit more about it?
It focuses purely on body movements. I feel way fitter than before, things which were difficult for me to do have now become extremely easy. This year is easily the fittest I have been in the last few years. The whole idea is to think how body moves, we need to train according to sport we play. Right now, I see a lot of people training in the gym to play a sport like cricket – which is basically a three-dimensional sport. We are not training our minds well enough and hence we face injury issues, not all exercises in the gym are related to the sport. Some basic movements I changed and first tried it with my teammates in Air India, who were getting injured alot. The key for me personally was to try it during a cricket season, I was playing Gold Cup in Dehradun with Air India, which we won. Then I got an opportunity to captain Uttarakhand which is a huge honour. Now, I tried the same things during a tournament as intense as the Ranji Trophy and the results were wonderful. I spent more time on the ground than the physio table for a change!
You are someone who has been around for a long time, what are some of the changes you have seen over the years in domestic cricket?
The quality of bowlers has come down I feel, the spinners are not the same they used to be. Basics like spin, flight and drift are completely missing. Earlier, even on placid tracks spinners used to pick wickets but now you see them struggle. On the other hand, game is becoming fast, you have to score at a good pace and you can’t play 250-300 balls to score a hundred if you want to fight for an outright victory. Also, now there are a lot of matches, each team plays atleast eight games. Some wickets are still a complete batting paradise but the good things is you have neutral curators. Also, I feel a lot of players are saving themselves for the IPL and that is something BCCI should look into, first-class cricket should remain the priority.
Could you explain further the point of players giving priority to IPL?
See, for me the real test comes when you play first-class cricket. A lot of players are just looking out for the IPL auctions, they just want to play in the league. They start saving themselves, even if they are 10% hurt, you see them resting. Then, a lot of them turn up only during the IPL. That is something the board should look into and maybe come out with a rule on players’ participation in the league.
Delhi this year has had another disappointing season and remain the perennial underachievers, what are your thoughts on their performance?
There are many established guys who should be playing for Delhi but they aren’t. If you look at a side like Mumbai, whenever their stars aren’t playing for India, they always turn up for the state side. I am also surprised to see India A play during the domestic season. Preference should be given to domestic cricket. You saw guys like Nitish Rana, Himmat Singh, Navdeep Saini miss out at the start of the season. It creates an opportunity for other players but I didn’t see anyone step up to the plate. Another issue are the injuries, if half your side is injured then you will never win tournaments. Half of the injuries are avoidable but the players don’t have knowledge and are without trainers during the off season. That doesn’t help either.
Do you sometimes feel bad about the way you exited Delhi cricket, something you contributed to so much?
Not really, I had played 95 first-class matches and wanted to complete 100 matches. I was lucky I got the chance to do that with Rajasthan. Delhi wanted the younger guys to come in and that’s how it should be, only when the old guys move on will the youngsters get an opportunity. I felt I still had a lot of cricket left in me, hence I moved to Rajasthan.
Any regrets on missing out on the India cap, considering you had a few good domestic seasons?
I am not someone who keeps regrets, I wasn’t even picked for NCA. I never had an opportunity to showcase my skills, no one from DDCA or BCCI pushed my case to give me one chance. If you see, I played 95 games in the IPL and performed well with the ball, which was my secondary skill. So many people who played just a handful of games for India looked ordinary but I never got a chance, so I guess we can never say what would have happened. I performed wherever I played, so I don’t see it as a loss or have any regrets.
First Published: January 4, 2019, 8:18 AM IST