3rd April 2022, the Punjab Kings are clashing swords with the Chennai Super Kings, hoping to showcase their brazen and rather unabashed commitment to throw caution to the wind. They don’t get off to a great start, though, with Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Mayank Agarwal departing inside two overs.
Liam Livingstone stamps his authority early but when Shikhar Dhawan falls with the score reading 109/3 after 10 overs, there is a bit of trepidation among the PBKS faithful. Not because they didn’t have enough runs on the board, but because their boom-or-bust approach, and its shortcomings have been well-documented.
Ideally, PBKS should have enough batting muscle to put all those fears to rest. They spent a fortune re-acquiring Shahrukh Khan, and in whatever fleeting glimpses Odean Smith had shown, he seemed a pretty powerful hitter too. To everyone’s surprise, however, neither of them walks out to bat.
Jitesh Sharma – a wicket-keeper who has made waves in domestic cricket, strides out to the centre. He has a decent domestic record but because of how the domestic cricket cookie crumbles, is not a “big name”. So, apart from a few who have watched him demolish domestic bowling attacks, this is an unpopular move.
That doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that Jitesh and PBKS don’t feel it is the wrong decision at all. If anything, this is the opportunity the wicket-keeper has been waiting for all this while. And, for the uninitiated, it wasn’t because opportunity had fortuitously knocked at his door. Instead, it was because of the grind he had gone through in domestic cricket.
For many, even today, Jitesh’s rise to stardom has been somewhat unexpected. But according to Pritam Gandhe – a domestic stalwart who coached Vidarbha during the 2021-22 season, Jitesh’s astronomical talent always warranted such a breakthrough campaign.
“He has always been talented. Natural talent is just something else. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to justify it during his early career. But a slight change in mindset has worked wonders. I have just told him that there is a different way to bat and he has taken it on board,” Gandhe told Sportskeeda.
The obvious question then is why Jitesh wasn’t able to translate his talent into something more tangible. Like a lot of cricketers dripping with quality, the answer isn’t quite straightforward. It is, for those attuned to the nitty-gritty of the sport, an ever-evolving debate and an ever-elusive conundrum.
For Jitesh, though, it was a simple case of adopting a different style and taking on board a different mindset. Earlier, according to Gandhe, he used to pre-meditate a little and had pre-conceived ideas on where he wanted to attack the bowlers. While a bit of that still exists, especially when he bats during the last 1-2 overs, he has massively improved when it comes to attacking different areas, and playing the ball according to its merit.
“I have always told him not to pre-meditate his shots. Don’t pre-decide an area where you want to hit; instead, be neutral and hit the ball where it is bowled. I told him all he needs to remember is where the gaps are and once he does that, he has enough power and talent to keep scoring runs. He has practiced a lot to perfect this method and I am glad it has worked for him,” the veteran said.
Akin to many precociously talented youngsters, Jitesh also had a slight question mark over what his best position in T20 cricket would be. He began his career as an opener and enjoyed some success too, scoring a ton in domestic cricket. When batting at the top, he was usually tasked with maximising the powerplay and while the effort was never a problem, the returns weren’t as high as he would’ve expected.
Before the 2021-22 season, though, things changed. He began batting in the middle order, and the results have been there for everyone to see. Apart from giving him more short, sharp bursts for making an impact, it has given him more clarity.
“Last season, I felt that he would be a much better fit in the middle order. In the powerplay, you can’t keep taking singles so you have to keep attacking. He would hit a few magnificent strokes but would then get out. I then told him that he would be better suited in the middle order. I said that he shouldn’t be thinking about getting big scores and that because of his talent, he could change the game even in a matter of a few balls."
"A lot of people said that I should make him open but I always felt that he would be his best version in the middle order. He finished many matches for us (Vidarbha) and he also agreed that it was best for him. It clicked for him and he is now making his mark in the middle order [for Punjab Kings],” Gandhe added.
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Jitesh Sharma has been terrific in IPL 2022
Jitesh has, in fact, been one of the standout performers in IPL 2022. A lot of Indian middle order batters have stolen the limelight this season. None, however, has the sort of record that Jitesh has, raising the question around why the wicket-keeper’s performances aren’t getting highlighted enough.
As things stand, he has the sixth highest strike-rate in the competition in 2022 (minimum 100 runs scored). Of the six batters to have the highest strike rates, his average is the second best, indicating that he has been belligerent quite regularly. For context, the others on this list are Andre Russell, Dinesh Karthik, Glenn Maxwell, Livingstone and Rovman Powell.
Only two Indians feature. Incidentally, both of them (Jitesh and Karthik) are wicket-keepers and probably not very close to making the national side. That, though, is a debate for another day. But if India were to look towards Jitesh sometime in the future, as Virender Sehwag suggested they should, they won’t just find a superb middle-order bruiser, they’ll also stumble upon one of the best glovemen in the country.
“He is one of the best wicket-keepers in the country. Everything comes very naturally to him. He is agile, he is quick and very clean with his glovework. When he keeps, he has an aura and a presence about him. The batters know there is someone lively behind the stumps. With the bat, he has all the shots in the book. If you bowl it in his areas, especially if you are a spinner, he will clear the fence – that is for certain,” the 2021-22 Vidarbha head coach said.
Jitesh’s biggest quality, though, might not even be the cricketing traits he brings to the fore. A lively presence in the dressing room, the wicket-keeper always adds energy to the environment and is an excellent reader of the game as well – facets that make him stand out from the rest of the pack, according to Gandhe and Vidarbha teammate Aditya Sarwate.
“He always provides valuable inputs even if he is not in the playing eleven. Jitesh is a great team man and is always putting his hand up to help others,” Sarwate said.
“As a person, he is very active. He is lively and he is exactly like a wicket-keeper should be. Even if the team is underdoing a tough phase, he keeps everyone in high spirits. He is also a very good planner. He tells the bowlers where to bowl and is an excellent game-reader. Jitesh is also a very positive and attacking player. He has a positive body language at all times,” Gandhe elaborated.
There are also murmurs that Jitesh, being a wicket-keeper batter, idolises a certain MS Dhoni. In his first IPL outing, the lad from Vidarbha went up against the former Indian skipper, and rather than being fazed by the occasion, he seemed to relish it. Towards the end of that game, he convinced Mayank that Dhoni had nicked a delivery to him – a hunch that was vindicated by DRS.
So, there is plenty to like about Jitesh. As a person, he is everything you would want in a team environment – someone willing to put the collective ahead of himself. As a cricketer, he has the uncanny ability of imposing himself irrespective of the situation and making an impact irrespective of the time given to leave an imprint.
Not many are blessed with that sort of talent. Talent, by the way, has always been a buzz word with Jitesh. Prior to this domestic season, many couldn’t join the dots and understand the anomaly of him not getting picked in the IPL and of him not putting up displays his talent warranted.
In 2022, though, all of that seems to have changed. It has taken hours of hard work, tons of patience, and an uncluttered mind for Jitesh to get here. And now that he is here, he is only reminding everyone why he was always touted for greatness in Nagpur’s cricketing circuits.
With the willow, with the gloves, or in the field – Jitesh Sharma always seems to have an aura and a presence about it. His Vidarbha coach Pritam Gandhe and his teammates might have known about that for some time. After a stellar IPL campaign, maybe the rest of India does too!