Few quantities can send the media box into a flurry like an unknown player who suddenly grabs the limelight. Against the Gujarat Lions on Friday, when Rahul Tripathi stroked a flowing square drive to the boundary, he raised a few approving eyebrows. When he stepped out and slogged veteran Praveen Kumar, he looked most at home in the shortest format. But when he anticipated the next full ball, and struck it with a straight bat over long off for six, he sent journalists scurrying for their keyboards to Google his name.
He was the first Pune cricketer to play for a Pune franchise, that much was known. But suddenly, he had helped Rising Pune Supergiant to their best start in the IPL. On Sunday against Royal Challengers Bangalore, he got 31 off 23 in a low scoring game.
But the question remained, who is Rahul Tripathi?
Rahul Tripathi has been mad about cricket “since he was nine months old” according to his father. “In kindergarten, he would turn a pencil and a rubber into a bat and a ball,” Colonel Ajay Tripathi fondly told Firstpost. “He was a very active child. When we visited Mumbai and travelled by local trains, he would do pull-ups on the handles in the compartment,” he added, the pride in his face almost discernible through the phone.
Rahul dabbled in all sports, but reserved a special place for cricket. It is hardly surprising, considering that his father Colonel Tripathi played at the university level before playing junior state cricket for Uttar Pradesh. But it was only after the family arrived in Pune did Rahul get the avenues to express his talent.
Colonel Tripathi’s army posting took him to Srinagar during Operation Parakram at the turn of the century. His family was with him there as well. It was a time and place that was hardly conducive to his nine-year-old sport-loving son.
After the stint in Srinagar, the family came to Pune. The first thing young Rahul asked his father for was to enroll him in cricket coaching. His first stop was Nehru Stadium, but a match was in progress there. So it was that he found his way to Deccan Gymkhana, one of Pune’s oldest clubs, which he still plays for today.
With his father away on postings, it fell upon Mrs Saroj Tripathi to ensure her son’s development as a young man. “All credit goes to my wife,” said Colonel Tripathi. “She would ensure he got to practice on time, took care of his diet (he is a pure vegetarian), and his academics.”
Mrs Tripathi, a regular in the gym herself, evidently did a good job. Besides progressing up the ranks at the club, Rahul rebuffed stereotypes of sportspersons being poor students. He excelled in school and college, particularly in math. “His lowest score in math is 98,” Colonel Tripathi said, the pride again evident. Besides inspiring his younger sister to play basketball, Rahul now also holds a B.Sc in mathematics.
On the field, Rahul’s army upbringing stood him in good stead. Former Ranji wicketkeeper Satyajeet Sathbhai, who coaches the senior team at Deccan Gymkhana, described Tripathi as a studious, quiet, and polite individual. “Rahul is extremely dedicated,” he told Firstpost. Sathbhai reserved more praise for Rahul’s sincerity and discipline than his batting. “We would never have to call him to the ground, but we always had to tell him to go home. Even two days before the IPL began, he asked permission from RPS and came to the Gymkhana to bat for two hours.”
His knock on Saturday gave the impression that he was made for T20 cricket. But Sathbhai revealed that it was not always so, and Pune’s most renowned IPL player had a hand in his development. “In his U-19 days, he was a technically perfect, spend-time-at-the-wicket type of player. He played a lot with Kedar Jadhav over the last few years,” said Sathbhai. “The aggression in his game has developed playing alongside Kedar. Now look at the big sixes he can hit.”
The presence of the Jadhav helped Rahul develop his work ethic as well. He applied his dedication to his fitness training too, overcame a back injury in 2011, and now holds his own as a fielder even in the talented RPS lineup. And when some senior players moved on from Deccan Gymkhana, Rahul, along with Maharashtra Ranji captain Swapnil Gugale, assumed the role of mentor.
“They are the ones who get the boys together, arrange practice, etc,” said Sathbhai. “Earlier all the young players wanted to be like Kedar. Now they want to follow Rahul as well.”
Rahul was signed on by the RPS in the auction for his base price of Rs 10 lakh. An IPL contract brings the players money and opportunity, but also, a mark. They are tagged fortunate, special, looked at differently by their teammates. For a while, conversations about them turn to money, not runs and wickets. The expectations go up a notch. Clearly none of these affected Rahul. On the contrary, the IPL nod seems to have boosted his confidence.
He had 185 runs from 11 innings in this year’s Ranji Trophy, and four wickets with this medium pace (we might see that later in the tournament). He didn’t even make the zonal team for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, considered the audition for the IPL. But soon after the auction, he scored 157 runs from three innings in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, including a 95 off 74 balls in the quarter-final, against eventual finalists Bengal.
According to his coaches at Deccan Gymkhana, Rahul has always batted in the top three for club and Maharashtra age group teams, and has been among the highest run-getters in those tournaments. But he has not gotten the same opportunities in the Ranji side, often batting in the lower middle order. On Friday, given a chance to return to his more natural position, he stepped up. His 33 off 17 balls helped RPS get to their 50 off 27 balls, which was the fastest in the tournament for the Pune team. His runs against RCB gave his team the flying start they needed. Credit must go to the RPS talent scouts for looking beyond the numbers.
Colonel Tripathi, currently posted in Gandhidham, travelled 190-odd kilometers to Rajkot to watch his son play on Friday. “It felt good, to see him do well, though I thought he may get a 50,” said the senior Tripathi, high army standards shining through. “But since it’s his first time opening, he would have learnt a lot.”
His son was equally dissatisfied with his runs. “I’m not that happy. If I would have continued batting till the 10th or 12th over, we could have been able to score more runs,” Rahul said after Friday’s game.
Three matches are too little to go by, but Rahul has looked at home. Now he is now a marked man. The media know who he is, as, more importantly, do his opponents. Somewhere in the Sunrisers Hyderabad camp, a video analyst is busy collecting video clips. The next few games will be the sternest test of his discipline and ability.
Who is Rahul Tripathi? It is a question that shall be answered this season. But more importantly, he has given RPS some answers at the top of the order.
This is an army family. The father has already represented the country, on a battleground more dangerous than any outfield. Rahul too wants the country colours; no fatigues for him though, he wants the blues.
Mrs Tripathi often jokes with her son about how Virat Kohli’s mother’s name is Saroj as well. And he in turn tells her that one day, her name will be on his shirt.
This weekend’s games, the IPL; it is all just the beginning.
Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer, freelance journalist, and YouTuber. She tweets @SnehalPradhan
Updated Date: Apr 17, 2017 16:25 PM