20th November, 2021. Vidarbha are locking horns with Karnataka in the semi-final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. The game, which has ebbed and flowed multiple times, hangs in the balance when Jitesh Sharma strides out to the centre. Karnataka have done brilliantly to keep the Vidarbha batters in check and under ordinary circumstances, would’ve fancied their chances to book a place in the summit clash.
But with Jitesh around, they know they can’t breathe easy. For context, the wicket-keeper has, before the semi-final, smashed 17 sixes in the competition – the most by any batter. He also has the ability to tear apart any bowling attack, irrespective of the conditions and the quality of the bowlers.
In the 15th over, Jitesh signals his intentions very early. Against MB Darshan, he opens up his shoulders and clears the fence comfortably. Those who haven’t watched him play previously, sit up and take notice. This is, at the cost of sounding cliched, hitting that deserves a place at the very top of the Indian cricketing food-chain. Those who have watched Jitesh maraud his way through in domestic cricket, know this is pretty much the norm.
But then, just when it seemed Jitesh would take the game away from Karnataka, he has to walk back to the pavilion. He could’ve tried to stretch the game and hoped that someone else played a blinder at the other end. But he didn’t. He was the in-form batter and he took matters into his own hands. On that afternoon in Delhi, it didn’t quite work. From a broader perspective, though, it was a mindset that was reflective of what he is capable of achieving.
A few months later, when the IPL Auction rolled into town, almost everyone had forgotten what Jitesh had accomplished during the domestic T20 competition. Memory, especially in cricket, is quite fickle. The more glamorous names keep cropping up, and those who don’t fall under the bracket, often have to do that little bit extra to just evoke a mention.
Fortunately for the wicket-keeper, the Punjab Kings weren’t so oblivious to his talent. They snapped him up for his base price, and at that moment, it felt that most teams weren’t bothered. PBKS, however, were grinning from ear to ear. And, those who knew what Jitesh could do, understood that PBKS had bagged a bargain.
Jitesh Sharma made his debut against CSK in IPL 2022
Cut to April 2022. PBKS are clashing swords with the Chennai Super Kings at the Brabourne Stadium. On paper, the former has one of the most powerful batting units in the IPL. That only gets stronger when Jitesh is given the nod – possibly to utilize his six-hitting ability but most certainly to show the world what kind of damage he could inflict.
For a lot of cricketers, an IPL debut, that too against the mighty CSK, would be daunting. It would even force them to venture out of their comfort zones and adopt something slightly more conservative, considering they don’t want their shortcomings to be exposed so soon. But Jitesh, because he is Jitesh, never even contemplated that option.
In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, the Punjab Kings batter opened up on that debut game against CSK, what his thoughts were and how he just stuck to what he had been doing all along. He finished that game with a 17-ball 26 that included three sixes, indicating that he was ready to take the IPL by storm.
“My nature is to put myself in pressure situations. I just love testing myself in difficult circumstances. If everything is normal, I am a slightly lazy person (chuckles). I was very eager to leave a mark on my debut – in front of that crowd, around MS bhai. It was my wish that I want to keep playing with these guys (PBKS teammates). I just wanted to show people what I am capable of. A night before, Anil sir told me and I was smiling throughout. I was ready half an hour before the team bus came and I was excited to just bat. Skills and technical details play a part at the top level. But the most important aspect is whether you have the heart and the courage to be successful,” Jitesh commented.
During that game, there was another instance where Jitesh’s innate confidence came to the fore. When MS Dhoni was batting, there was an appeal for a caught behind off Rahul Chahar’s bowling. CSK were huffing and puffing at that juncture but with Dhoni at the crease, they might’ve been hoping for a miracle. As soon as Jitesh gathered the ball, he went up in appeal, only to see the umpire and most of his teammates unmoved.
Rather than adhering to status quo, Jitesh took a stand. He almost pleaded Mayank Agarwal to go for the review, and was vindicated. A slight spike on Ultra Edge, a broad Jitesh smile and the great man was departing to the pavilion. More importantly, PBKS, due to their wicket-keeper’s proactiveness, had the game in the bag.
This bravado and confidence isn’t just visible when donning the gloves. With the bat, too, the wicket-keeper has never compromised on his firebrand batting philosophy. There have been days when it hasn’t quite come off. But that hasn’t deterred him from sticking to an approach that has paid rich dividends in the past.
“Not many will back you. So, you have to back yourself. I have just done things that I have done since childhood. If I feel something is right, I will stick by it no matter what. I don’t blindly listen to what people say. I first try to understand where they are coming from and then I evaluate whether it will be beneficial for me. If I had stopped playing attacking cricket, this interview wouldn’t have happened either. This is what has brought me success and this is how I will play,” Jitesh elaborated.
Unlike many youngsters, Jitesh’s finest hours have come batting lower down the order. He began his career as an opener in T20 cricket, mind you. However, since shifting to the middle order, he has become a different beast altogether. Much of that is down to former Vidarbha coach and cricketer Pritam Gandhe, who was willing to trust the wicket-keeper’s abilities and was encouraging enough to make Jitesh realize where his strengths truly lay.
“Pritam sir has played a huge role. I am grateful that he played me in the middle order. His observation is brilliant and he felt that I can clear the boundaries easily when batting in the middle order. He just asked me to stay neutral and play the ball according to its merit. Lower down, the situation is tougher. Earlier, when I opened, I used to think about the average. Average doesn’t matter in T20s. What matters is how much impact you can make and if you can single-handedly win matches for your team,” the PBKS batter quipped.
It was quite revealing that the wicket-keeper talked about the buzzwords in modern-day white-ball cricket – average and strike-rate. India have, over the years, been slightly reluctant to move away from its anchor-heavy brand of batting. In the process, the finishing gig has assumed greater importance.
That, though, comes with its fair share of caveats. As finishers, the games that you help your team win aren’t remembered, with those where you fall short often being the lasting image. Jitesh, who has transitioned to becoming a middle-order enforcer, knows the perils attached to this sort of role. For him, though, it’s about isolating himself from the pressures as much as possible and just not listening to whatever is being said on the outside.
“Even if you talk about someone as great as Dhoni, even he can’t guarantee if they will definitely win the match. Nobody can give that guarantee. It’s just about believing in yourself and staying calm. I know if I stay at the crease, I can tilt the match my side’s way. When I talked to Mahi bhai, he told me to just keep things simple and not overthink. The more you play, the better you will get at handling these situations.
You can’t control what people are talking about you. I have been through phases where people have had some opinions about me but I have built a mechanism to not care much about it. Cricket is a reaction game and you can only react well when you are relaxed and you don’t think about too many unnecessary details,” Jitesh elaborated.
This was, in fact, an advice Liam Livingstone had given Jitesh as well. When breaking into the side, the latter almost found the former to be his reflection, considering how both like to attack and not take a backward step. With England fully embracing the boom-or-bust approach, Livingstone has been able to bat the way he wants. For Jitesh, it hasn’t been that easy, especially with opinions in the domestic circuit being more conventional than cavalier. The key, though, as Livingstone told him, was to just be himself.
“He (Livingstone) backed me a lot throughout the tournament. I told him that I suffer a little in domestic cricket because I never play for stats. But it is unfortunately something I can’t explain to people. Livi then told me that I should continue batting the way I am. Don’t worry about what people say. You have come here because you know how to bat aggressively. Just be the best version of yourself. That is the kind of relationship we had,” the PBKS batter added.
So, a couple of things, through this conversation, have become amply clear. Firstly, Jitesh has never gotten anything on a plate. He travelled to Nagpur from Amaravati as a 16-year-old and had to adapt to newer surroundings. He then had to convince people that his attacking philosophy, which can be a let-down at times, was the right way to go for him. The wicket-keeper also had to wait an eternity before earning his IPL stripes – all while setting the domestic stage alight with his fearsome hitting.
But like most things in life, this has had a positive effect on him too. Or, maybe because he is such a charismatic character, he has found a way to not get bogged down by negativity. The ability to adapt has enabled him to find his feet in the IPL instantly. The belligerent brand of batting has endeared him to thousands of fans and the long wait, which might have been frustrating, seems to have ended at just the right time.
Back in November 2021, not many knew about Jitesh. A few knew he could tonk the ball and clear almost any boundary in the country. But there was skepticism around whether he could do it in the IPL or possibly, international cricket. A few of those questions have been answered, especially after the kind of IPL season he had. So, you might feel things have changed.
A closer look, though, will tell you that things haven’t. He is still that effervescent character that puts his team at the forefront. He is still that individual who does what he feels is right. And most tellingly, he is still that batter who backs himself because, well, that is something most others won’t.
Irrespective of whether he is playing for Vidarbha or PBKS, Jitesh has remained exactly the same. Probably, that’s why he has enjoyed so much success – all while overcoming obstacles, prejudices and of course, playing with the courage and heart that makes him different to so many others.