Not everyone is lucky enough to live the dream of dismissing a legend like Ricky Ponting in the very first over of his IPL debut. However, Uttar Pradesh pacer Ankit Rajpoot turned that dream into reality when he got the better of the Australian legend in the very first over of his debut IPL match for the Chennai Super Kings against the Mumbai Indians back in 2013.
The way he foxed the experienced batsman with pace, steep bounce and immediate change in length after seeing the batsman stepping out of the crease, won admiration from all quarters of the cricketing fraternity. The 19-year old, a highly coveted pace bowling asset in the country back then, registered figures of 1/25 bowling three overs in that match and showed what could offer the Super Kings in the season ahead.
But it is quite difficult to digest that it took him another five years to rise to prominence and to be known the way he was supposed to be in his debut year. He underwent change in jerseys twice since his debut and it looks like he has finally struck the right chord with the red colour of the Kings XI Punjab. His sensational spell of 5/14 against the Sunrisers Hyderabad at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, on Thursday confirmed that he is going nowhere this season and he is here to stay.
But why did it take so long for him to reach his full potential?
The answer lies in his underutilisation by the previous franchises he played for — the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Chennai Super Kings.
Rajpoot’s pace coupled with steep bounce and swinging abilities offered Chennai a wicket taking ability with the ball which was way better than others in the squad they had assembled in 2013.
It would be foolish to say that the Super Kings were not aware of Rajpoot’s supreme bowling abilities. After all, they had signed him up on the back of a stellar 2012/13 Ranji season when he claimed 31 wickets in 7 matches at an average of 18 and thus emerged as the second highest wicket-taker for Uttar Pradesh in that season.
However, the rise of Mohit Sharma as Super Kings’ premier domestic bowler meant Rajpoot got just one match after his debut in which he bowled a lone over for 10 runs. He didn't get a match in the entire season after that. A couple of below-par domestic seasons followed and he didn't even get a game in the following couple of years of IPL.
Just when it was looking like Rajpoot was fading away into obscurity, he revived his career again, finishing as the third highest wicket taker in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2016. He claimed 14 wickets in the tournament at an average of 14.21.
This performance led to a turnaround as the Kolkata Knight Riders signed him for a price of Rs 1.5 crore in the 2016 IPL auctions. Everyone had expected Rajpoot to get a good run of matches with the Knight Riders, unlike his time with the Super Kings.
However, all he got with them was sporadic chances — four matches in 2016 and five in the following year — in which he claimed a total of seven wickets at a not so impressive average 29.71 and economy rate of 8.27. He wasn't pick due to established international bowlers like Umesh Yadav in the side, and the presence of overseas bowlers meant there was hardly any room for him to play in the starting XI. He was selected to play only in case of injuries to the first team members and wasn't given a continuous run ever by the franchise. The lack of confidence shown in him and the pressure of performing got the better of the player as he failed to churn up impressive performances.
But the present year, 2018, has turned out to be the golden year in his career so far. Kings XI Punjab have shown supreme faith in their new signing as they have used him as their leading new ball bowler in the previous three matches. And Rajpoot has repaid the faith with two scintillating back-to-back ‘Man of the Match’ performances.
Although he turned out to be quite expensive during his first outing in Kings XI colours, conceding 32 runs in three overs and that too against his former franchise the Knight Riders, Punjab didn't lose faith in the 24-year old and backed him to come up well in the next game. After all, Rajpoot’s overall T20 record of 64 wickets in 49 matches at an average of 18.70 and economy rate of 7.27 speaks for itself.
Rajpoot didn't disappoint them as he came up with an impressive performance of 2/23 against the Delhi Daredevils in the very next game which helped his side win by a narrow margin of four runs in a low-scoring encounter. His victims included Prithvi Shaw and the dangerous Glenn Maxwell.
However, his spell of 5/14 against the Sunrisers Hyderabad is what turned him into an overnight sensation. In that spell, he showed his versatility as a bowler and proved that he has many dimensions to his bowling along with his pace.
He used his strength with the new ball to good effect claiming the wicket of Kane Williamson in his very first over. He hurried him up with pace and the steep bounce on the delivery forced Williamson to miscue the pull as the ball went straight away into the hands of the mid off fielder.
Shikhar Dhawan was out next, caught in the slips in his second over as he induced a knick off the batsman's willow with a beautiful out-swinging delivery. The wicket of Wriddhiman Saha in his third over showed that he has a mean and effective slower ball as well. Saha tried to slog him over mid wicket but he got foxed by the off-cutter and ended up ballooning the ball in the air.
The last over turned out to be the best of the lot as he claimed the wickets of Manish Pandey and Mohammad Nabi. He cleaned up Pandey with an absolutely unplayable yorker bowled with pace and dip. Nabi was his last victim as he hit the last delivery of the innings straight into the hands of the long off fielder to complete Rajpoot's five-wicket haul.
Although this superb bowling effort went in vain with the batsmen failing to chase down the modest target of 133, it made clear that his association with Punjab is going to be one to remember this year. The Kings XI have shown exactly how to use his potential and talent in the right way rather than underutilising and benching him for the major part of the season.
Fast bowlers thrive on confidence and Rajpoot’s skills — the pace, the bounce he extracts from the pitch due to his height, his mean variations and a deadly yorker — are being executed to good effect because the confidence shown in him by his present franchise.
He is a pace bowling asset to watch out for. The Indian team can do well with such a player. But he needs to keep performing in this way to make the Indian team. He has time on his side and Rajpoot will only get better from here on. For now, his focus should be on helping his franchise lift the trophy for the first time in IPL history.