After the first day’s play, Srikar Bharat was stretching in the corner of the ground, when a few teenage boys spotted him. “Woh RCB wala hai na? Six maarke match jeeta tha!” (He is the RCB player right? He hit a six and won a game). Bharat’s last-ball six against Delhi Capitals a couple of months ago is his instant connect with the fans. They fumbled for his name, before they gave up, though they squealed for a selfie, which a coyly smiling Bharat obliged. They yelled out a parting wish too, “Six maarke match jitwao!” (Hit a six and win the game).
Bharat responded with an all-knowing smile. He wouldn’t hit a six in the match; for he was not even in the eleven. He was, yet again, fated to be a nearly man. If Rishabh Pant was not fit for the England series, he would have made his Test debut; if Wriddhman Saha was not fit for this series, or if he had hurt his neck a day before, he would have been playing in this Test.
But fate, in a twisted way, was kinder to him, as Saha sustained a stiff neck on Friday, giving Bharat his first outing in a Test match, but one that would not statistically count as he played as a substitute keeper. He ended and began the day as it is, someone waiting for his first Test appearance.
But between the end and start of the day, he demonstrated that he has the requisite standard to stake a larger claim in the playing eleven. It was a tough examination on an up-and-down wicket, an ordeal for keepers, which he passed with flying colours.
The stumping of New Zealand opener Tom Latham might be his most spectacular moment of the match, wherein his agility of mind and body stood out, but there were several other instances too. The moment Latham jumped down the track, he made that sideward shuffle, his hands following his feet in a harmony of muscles, in anticipation of a stumping. But what happened next was the stuff of nightmares, Latham bottom-edged it, and rather than collecting the ball from left-side, he had to gather from his right in less than a split second. What’s worse, the ball dropped on to the ground in an instant. Now he had to realign his eyes from the left down to the ground.
But Bharat had the flexibility of mind and speed of reflexes to make complex moments look natural. A lot of keepers would have groped at it, but he didn’t. The hands, like a good keeper’s, descended with the ball, the upper-body arched just enough, the knees flexed just enough to maintain the balance, as he gathered the ball and whipped the bails off in the blink of an eye.
From where he was standing, it must have emerged into view at the very last second, but he pushed his hands through, moving forward and stumped him with time to spare. There is a bit of MS Dhoni too — his favourite cricketer and whose maiden ODI century he watched as a ball boy on the ground — in his stumping, in the absence of follow-through. Bharat’s flourish is not as minimalistic as Dhoni’s, but it’s relatively less than Saha. Even when picking on the off-side, he doesn’t lift his right-leg as pronouncedly as say Nayan Mongia, that keeper-artist. The impeccable balance when gathering stood out, most gloriously when he pocketed the catch of Will Young, a faint outside edge off a ball that kept low. He doesn’t lose his shape and even when the ball seems to have misbehaved, he is there to pick it, like a strict hostel warden with a never-flinching gaze on his inmates. A few times, the ball did beat him, especially on the leg-side, but there is only so much he could have done on this deck. Relatively easier was the Ross Taylor one, or rather he made it look easy. It’s what he always does—makes it look ridiculously simple. He often makes the magnificent look mundane, in a positive sense. When lesser-gifted keepers lunge, he just needs to stretch his arms, because he is already in a better position.
His stability begins with his stance – he has his head on the sixth stump to get the proper vision on the bowler’s hand and ball, because any further, batsmen would block the sight of the ball, and as good keepers are Bharat’s eyes are always fixed on the ball and not the batsman. But for all the verve he displayed in this match, he could end up as a perennial fringe keeper; deputy to Saha as well as Rishabh Pant. Therein is his fix — he is a better keeper than Pant, but not a better batsman (supposedly); he is a better batsman than Saha, but not a better keeper than him. It could turn out to be the story of his career too. Nonetheless, if he could pile on performances like in the chance breaks he gets he could put pressure on both Saha, now 37, and Pant, still unpredictable. He might not win every game with a six, but he can win games with his glove-work. As was evident on Thursday.