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IPL 2022: "It was difficult for me to get back to normal, but it'll make me even tougher" - KKR's Baba Indrajith reflects on debut season

Kolkata Knight Riders' Indrajith Baba (PC: YouTube).
Kolkata Knight Riders' Indrajith Baba (PC: YouTube).
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Rudransh Khurana

The Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) attempted to solve a puzzle in the second half of IPL 2022. Reeling under pressure from just three wins from eight matches, they rifled through debutants, desperately trying to find one player to hit 40-odd runs, maybe bowl a few overs and take one or two blinding catches - basically vanishing all of their issues in one strike. We can call it the 'Venkatesh Iyer effect'.

Those who didn't know Baba Indrajith before the season would see him as one of the many failed attempts to solve this puzzle. But the reality is much bigger and different than the thousands of glaring pieces of the franchise circus.

His unassuming walk to the pitch, lack of invites to pre-match interviews and a no-nonsense wicketkeeping technique might belie it, but Indrajith is a domestic giant. The 27-year-old is the highest averaging (66.10) first-class cricketer in India since 2016. Only two players in the world - Afghanistan's Bahir Shah (69.02) and New Zealand's Devon Conway (68.41) - have a better aggregate than him in this period.

Being able to score just 21 runs in 3 games for KKR is more likely to be a blip than a precedent. After all, he has overcome such false starts innumerable times before. In his debut Ranji Trophy season for Tamil Nadu, he was dropped after managing just 51 runs in three games. Over the next six seasons, he ended up in the top-three run-scorers for the state five times, leading the charts on two occasions.

This year, he has scored 396 runs from three Ranji games, including three centuries, at an average of 99. Known for his Mahela Jayawardene-esque flair and timing, he has added more shots and power-hitting to his batting this year, with all three of his centuries coming at a strike rate of above 75. This bumper red-ball run came after a 325-run stint (average of 46.52 and four fifties) in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy.

Prior to that, he was dropped from the 20-over-team for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. To reply to it in Test and ODI formats and then by impressing the KKR management by hitting a blistering 25-ball 60 in the trials is a testimony to his steely resolve.

So where does that leave him now? In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda facilitated by FairPlay Sports, Indrajith divulged his mindset before, during and after the season, the inspiration he takes from Dinesh Karthik, his international ambitions and more.

Excerpts from Baba Indrajith's interview with Sportskeeda:

“Felt a bit emotional after I received the cap” 💜Looking forward to seeing you having a nice outing, @IndrajithBaba! 🙌#KnightsInAction presented by @glancescreen | #KKRHaiTaiyaar #KKRvRR #IPL2022 https://t.co/CaPyuwZIm4

You have been in domestic bubbles before, but how do you feel after overcoming the IPL bubble?

Baba Indrajith: I was in Chennai for just two days in the last 100 days. So it feels good to be back home, out of the bubble. It feels good to see and meet people!

How was the KKR experience as a whole? From being selected in the auction to spending so many months at a franchise that is famous for treating its players well?

Baba Indrajith: It was a great experience because to be picked in the auction for KKR, it's a big franchise, and I [was] waiting to be picked in the IPL for a very long time, I've worked hard to get there. I've been on the domestic circuit for close to nine to 10 years, so I specifically worked in the last year or two to get into the IPL and worked on my white-ball game.

So when you work so hard, when you work so hard and get recognized for it, it feels good. And overall, the experience also, in the last 80 days, with the players, sharing the dressing room with a lot of legends of the game so learnt a lot, definitely. It was a great experience.

The signs were visible in this year's Ranji Trophy itself. Did not getting selected for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy played a role in it?

Baba Indrajith: It could be because it wasn't a conscious decision to play at that strike rate in the Ranji Trophy, but I feel it's a by-product of what I worked on. Because after I didn't get picked in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, I worked specifically on my white-ball game and did a lot of power-hitting... I was able to carry that form into the Ranji Trophy but it wasn't a conscious decision to do those things. I think I was able to get into good positions and get my eye in and once I got settled, everything fell in place in the Ranji Trophy.

How did your KKR debut come up? Was it Brendon McCullum who revealed it to you? What were your feelings like the night before?

Baba Indrajith: The thing is, I was prepared for a game before because I was supposed to make my debut in the previous game but due to an injury to a foreign cricketer, they had to change the combination. I was actually prepared. And then obviously before the game we had three to four days of break so Brendon McCullum spoke to me and told me I would be playing this game.

I was definitely prepared, excited at the same time and nervous as well because it was the first game. I mean, result-wise, it didn't go the way I would have liked it to go, but on the whole, it was a great experience. The things I worked on, this is what I wanted to do - make my IPL debut. That part came out but I wasn't able to contribute too much with the bat but on the whole, it was a good experience.

What was the role assigned to you by the management?

Baba Indrajith: In the first game I played my debut match, I had to play in the middle order so they basically said, "You are a timer of the ball so you play it to your strengths, you don't have to do anything extra. Whatever you feel like doing, whatever your strengths are, try and back that."

That was the message to me from the management and the coach, so I tried to do that. In the next two games my role was slightly different - I had to open the innings because of a different combination so even there they said I would be the anchor person because I was playing with Aaron Finch who obviously has a different style of playing. So on the whole, my role was to back my strengths and not do anything extra.

You talked about playing to your strengths, which is evidently playing the long game. But here you were playing for a team working on a philosophy of 'go hard or go home'. Even for an experienced player like you, how difficult or easy is it to adjust to that?

Baba Indrajith: As you said, we always have the freedom to go out there and express ourselves, that is the brand of cricket KKR has always played... That kind of support was always there from the management. Certain things were slightly difficult for me initially, so I was not able to get that start. Maybe if I had gotten that start, things would have been different.

How did you cope with getting dropped after three games?

Baba Indrajith: That was fine. I mean, I understand why I was not picked after it. It was part and parcel of the game but after those three innings, it was difficult for me to get back to normal because I had to face a lot of things. I was disappointed that I was not able to get those runs in those three opportunities.

But during that time, I learned a lot that - 'Yes, we do try sometimes, but not every time things go the way we expect them to go. Sometimes these things happen. This might be a lesson. Maybe next time I get there, there's a lot to improve on. Maybe not just skill-wise, but mentality-wise as well. It's also a good experience that I have got here, I have handled the pressure and everything.'

I see everything positively right now. Everything happens for a reason.

Isn't it the same as your debut Ranji season where you had a bad start too?

Baba Indrajith: Yeah, exactly. That's what was running through my mind after those three innings (smiles). It felt like going back to my first year of the Ranji Trophy but this time I was able to handle it better because I had seen it before and I had seen the other side as well. In the first five or six games of the Ranji Trophy, I wasn't able to get a good start but after that things went well for me and right now I am in a very good position in first-class and red-ball cricket.

I felt, 'OK, this is how things are for some people. Initially, they might not get those starts. But this will make me even tougher and stronger and whenever I get another chance and a start, these things will be on my mind and I won't miss out on those starts.'

I know how difficult it is to get that start and when I get it, I won't let it go down easily.

What was the communication with the team management like after you were dropped?

Baba Indrajith: Look, there are very, very nice people. I have spoken to Brendon McCullum a lot, right from the beginning he has maintained one thing... "Even if you fail, the way I look at you, the way I talk with you won't change". That gave all of us confidence. Whenever he sees us, whenever he talks to us off the field, he's a very, very positive person, so he gives that freedom. I don't think he says anything negative at all.

That’s why I think we have very good management. We have the support and backing. Everybody backed me. Even when I didn't do well, there weren't too many criticisms and too many negative thoughts. They were all helping me, they knew I was going through a rough time. When you have that kind of people around you, it makes it much easier.

Not being able to find the right combination, making so many changes - do you think that it was the main reason KKR didn't qualify? Or were there other reasons too?

Baba Indrajith: It is very hard to say that that is the reason because sometimes those are forced changes. Initially, we had a few people like Pat Cummins coming in slightly late. Tim Southee came after a match. We had a couple of injuries in between. So those were the changes we had to make.

After a point, when you are losing four or five games in a row, obviously you are looking at those combinations, trying to see if this or that combination is right. So these things happen when you lose games. I think it's very normal, but it's very difficult to pinpoint and say that is the reason for our bad season.

As an experienced leader yourself, how do you assess Shreyas Iyer's leadership in his first IPL for KKR? From the outside, he looked like a captain in control of the tactics. But how was he for you on the field and in the dressing room?

Baba Indrajith: He's very, very confident. He's a very confident person. He's also very positive and I think Shreyas and McCullum had a great rapport so it rubbed onto the players. When we lost three games in a row, the next thing was, "OK, let's try and win seven out of seven". Even when he had to win five out of five or four out of four, we never thought, "OK, the tournament is over" or anything like that.

We always believed that, "OK, one game, some kind of miracle would happen and if we keep trusting and believing in our process, I think we would make it till the end." So that kind of belief system was there from the management and our leader, so it rubbed onto the players as well.

And the miracle almost happened...

Baba Indrajith: Yeah, it did a couple of times! During the Rajasthan (Royals) game when we had to chase 220 something, we came very close and then lost from there and the same thing happened in the last game so these things happen. That's the beauty of the game.

How inspiring has Dinesh Karthik's journey been for you and the guys in Tamil Nadu?

So happy for @DineshKarthik 's comeback into the Indian team. His passion and work ethic is the reason for his unbelievable comeback. Seen him from close quarters how hard he has worked. Hope the good run continues and wish him the best!Go well Dinesh na🤗❤️

Baba Indrajith: His story has been amazing because, to be very honest, if I was in his position or his age, I don't think I would have had his motivation. He has made too many comebacks. To make so many comebacks you need to have the passion and the drive. It's not just that he went into the season thinking, 'Let's see what happens'. It's not like that. He's planned it... He's been on the circuit for a very long time. His work ethic, his passion for the game, and his drive are something else.

I think everybody is inspired by that. I don't know, but a lot of 32-33-year-olds can now think, 'OK I can also make a comeback into the Indian team'. They will not lose hope. He has inspired a lot of people, right from a young age, to people who are trying to make a comeback. It's a great, great story. I hope things go well for him and let's hope for the best.

Ravichandran Ashwin rates you very highly and feels you are ready for Test cricket. How do you see that compliment? And a word on your Team India ambitions?

Baba Indrajith: Look, when you get a compliment from Ravichandran Ashwin, who's a legend of the game and one of the best all-rounders to have ever played, it feels good. I sometimes feel like, 'OK, he sees something in me,' so that gives me the confidence. He's been doing this for a very long time. I've known him for a very long time, we've played league cricket together, Ranji Trophy together, so whenever I do well he messages me saying, "You have a spot in the Test XI, for some people it takes time so keep working hard your time will definitely come." Those kind of compliments it means a lot to me.

And regarding my Team India ambitions, it's definitely there. I have been doing well on the domestic circuit. I hope that somehow this year I can play for the Test team, let's hope for the best!

What are the immediate aims for Baba Indrajith? Getting that India cap, coming back stronger in the IPL or winning the Ranji Trophy for Tamil Nadu?

Baba Indrajith: Everything, to be honest (smiles) but the first thing is definitely getting the India Test cap. As I said before, I've been on the circuit for close to 10 years now and I didn't know these stats but I read recently that I was in the top-three in the world averaging from 2016 to 2022 so when I see those kinds of things I go, 'OK, maybe this is the time for me. I might get a break.' It's not in my hands for sure but I will definitely try and do whatever it takes to get to that level. Maybe India 'A' games - I don't think there are a lot of Tests before the T20 World Cup, but you never know what will happen at what point in time.

And I've definitely had ambitions to lift the Ranji Trophy, it's been there for a very, very long time, not just for me but the entire state of Tamil Nadu because it's been ages since we lifted the trophy. We've been doing well in the white-ball format and have won so many trophies... I am pretty sure it will happen soon. And I will keep working hard. Whenever I get an opportunity in the next IPL, I'll keep pushing. There's a long domestic season ahead of me. I'll do the right thing and hope for the best. I'm pretty sure if I get the opportunity next year, I'll do well.


Edited by Samya Majumdar
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