THIS IS just the start of the season Ankit Rajpoot had been dreaming of ever since he made his first-class debut for Uttar Pradesh six years back. With 14 scalps from two games, the 25-year-old sits on top of the highest wicket-takers list. Not surprisingly, his prolific returns were instrumental in Uttar Pradesh walking away with two commanding wins — an innings victory against Goa in Kanpur in the season opener, followed by a 10-wicket win against Odisha in Bhubaneshwar. These clutch of wins puts his team in a good frame of mind when they take on Services on their home turf at the Palam Ground for the third round.
Since his debut, Rajpoot has been making steady progress, chipping away with vital scalps with each passing year. This year has been different though. It began with a rousing start, when Rajpoot rose into the collective conscience with a searing five-wicket haul against the Sunrisers Hyderabad. His 5/14 helped him break the record for the best performance by an uncapped Indian fast bowler.
Not surprisingly, his exploits that night became the talking point, as he blew away the home team with his disconcerting bounce and prodigious movement. Most believe it was his IPL outings that helped him find a spot in the subsequent India A tours, against England and Australia respectively.
Venkatesh Prasad, someone who has seen Rajpoot from close quarters as the former coach of Uttar Pradesh, begs to differ. “I feel it’s his performances in Ranji Trophy that has put him in the reckoning not only for the India A tours, but also has also helped him land plum IPL contracts.”
While growing up in Kanpur, Rajpoot was enamoured by Ishant Sharma. Like Sharma, he too was gifted with height and robust physique to become a fast bowler. As luck would have it, he was barely 10, when he got enrolled at Kamala Club. Prasad says he was mighty impressed when he first spotted the pacer at a camp organised for probables in Green Park in 2012-13 season. “The moment I saw him bowl at the nets, I thought he was special. He had all the attributes to make it big,” Prasad quips.
Leap of faith
Taking a huge leap of faith, he was immediately drafted into Uttar Pradesh’s Ranji Trophy squad. Rajpoot, who was barely 18 then, and took his time to hit his straps. Despite the odd brilliant spell, he was erratic and remained largely on the fringes. That did not deter him from putting in the hard yards though. He worked on his fitness, and kept probing Prasad with persistent questions. With time, he graduated seamlessly through the state’s age-group levels. A prolific season for Uttar Pradesh at the CK Nayudu Trophy cemented his place in the state’s first-class team.
A stunning performance in IPL earlier in the year, followed by two consecutive match-defining spells in Ranji Trophy. Rajpoot puts this evolution down to the experiences of the India A tours that preceded this showpiece first-class tournament. “I had learnt a lot from bowling on various conditions during the previous seasons. But I can’t deny that India A tours too have played a key role in my evolution,” he explains.
It’s during these tours where he got tips from Paras Mhambrey, the team’s bowling coach, which were vital in honing his skills further, like helping him gain control on his lines and lengths, and more specifically at perfecting his outswinger. “Paras sir helped me iron out a few of my deficiences. But he helped me perfect the outswinger and get more control over it. This has helped me become more effective,” he says.
He also got some much-needed advice from Rahul Dravid. “Rahul sir spoke in great detail from a batsman’s perspective, like what to bowl during a particular match situation and ways at setting up various batsmen, and stuff like that.”
Seeing Rajpoot’s impressive haul, Prasad reckons the team management has missed a trick by not including him for the ongoing India A tour to New Zealand. “I believe he should have been on that trip to New Zealand. He has the height, gets good bounce, can swing and seam prodigiously. He would have been a real asset in those conditions. His presence would also have improved our bench strength,” Prasad adds. The Uttar Pradesh team management are not complaining though. They know that Rajpoot’s presence will be pivotal to the team’s fortunes for the rest of the season.
Nath, Rajpoot clear Yo-Yo test on second chance
It’s interesting to note that two of Uttar Pradesh’s star performers this Ranji season — Akshdeep Nath, their newly appointed captain and pacer Ankit Rajpoot had, in fact, failed to clear the Yo-Yo test conducted last month. Nath notched up scores of 194 and 159 in the two innings, while Rajpoot prised out 14 scalps. The Yo-Yo test, has become the definitive indicator of a player’s fitness levels in recent times.
Both Nath and Rajpoot did clear the test when they were given a second chance, but their irrepressible perfromances have shown that cricket is ultimately a game where other skills more than just fitness remain paramount. Rajpoot puts things into perspective. “Both Akshdeep and I failed the test that was conducted last month. I really don’t know what happened. I was coming after having played a couple of club games for RBI. But the team management organized another test four-five days before the first Ranji game, which we cleared. So, there was no confusion in this regard, and we got selected,” Rajpoot adds.