Meet Yastika Bhatia, the karate kid who loves batting

Yastika Bhatia sweeps one against Australia. © Getty Images

After Harmanpreet Kaur, India vice-captain, was ruled out of the first ODI against Australia, a slot in the middle-order opened up. India had Jemimah Rodrigues, who raked up the runs in The Hundred, and Punam Raut, who scored the most runs in the ODI series at home against South Africa in March, as options. However, the tourists gave Yastika Bhatia, the left-handed batter, a go and the southpaw impressed on debut.

Shafali Verma was dismissed in the fourth over and Bhatia was thrust in at No.3. She then saw the experienced Smriti Mandhana fall within another couple of overs. In the company of captain Mithali Raj, Bhatia reveled.

Darcie Brown, only in her second ODI, was on a roll, dismissing both Verma and Mandhana. She was cranking up the pace and testing them with the short ball. She banged one in in the line of Bhatia’s body, and was greeted with a strong pull through square leg for four. Bhatia had announced her arrival on the international stage in style.

In the third ODI, Bhatia again showed her mettle, stringing a 101-run partnership with Shafali Verma with India chasing a record 265 to end Australia’s winning streak. She timed her shots down the ground, often beating mid-on, and then used her wrists to exploit the region between point and third expertly. She was the aggressor in the partnership, which laid the base for India’s eventual successful chase.

***

In 2008, a young kid walked in at the Youth Service Centre, or YSC as it is popularly known, one of the oldest cricket clubs in Baroda. Lean build, short hair and spunky, the kid was brought to Santosh Chaugule and the brief was: “Ek baar dekhna kaisi bat karti hai. (Just take a look how she bats). She is a girl, not a boy.” Chaugule liked the first look of the batter. The eight-year-old Bhatia had made a good first impression.

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Yastika Bhatia

Yastika Bhatia gave a good account of herself in the three ODIs against Australia in Mackay. © Getty Images

Bhatia was a karate kid well before she was enrolled in cricket. A black belt in karate, she also played badminton and did swimming, all of which contributed to her fitness and stamina.

“She played karate, so her fitness and flexibility were good,” Chaugule, Bhatia’s coach, tells Women’s CricZone. “As she progressed, she increased her fitness.”

Bhatia was first selected for the Baroda Under-19 side in 2011 as a pure batter.

“The selectors told me they don’t have a wicket-keeper in Under-19,” Bhatia tells this portal. “So, I started wicket-keeping and I (always) loved batting.”

“I had to work extra hard (at wicket-keeping) because I’m tall. I had to bend down to get to the ball. I have been focussing on my legs in gym workouts for that.”

In 2017, Bhatia scored her first hundred for Baroda Under-19 when she made an unbeaten 131 against Maharashtra Under-19.  A year later, she struck a humongous 145 off just 136 balls against Haryana in Baroda’s 83-run win in the Women’s Under-23 One Day Trophy 2018-19. In the Women’s Under-23 T20 Trophy later in 2019-20, she showed her wares by scoring a belligerent 125 not out off just 63 balls against Manipur. In the competition she finished fourth in the list of top run-scorers with 251 runs, and struck them at over 124 runs per hundred balls, the highest among the top ten run-getters.

“We focused on her techniques at the start, like defending well, playing the drive well, playing nicely off the back foot,” Chaugule recalls. “After she did that, we started training her power strokes – both in the air and on the ground. Then we worked on her lofted shots. We didn’t tamper with her batting much. We made her basics quite strong, due to which she could change her gears easily.”

***

Ahead of the T20 World Cup in 2020, in January, Bangladesh and Thailand were in Patna to play a Quadrangular series featuring India A and India B sides. Bhatia was part of the India B team and once again put in a performance of note, striking an undefeated 65 off 52 balls against Thailand. Although she didn’t make the T20 World Cup squad, she knew she was on the radar of the national team.

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“After the Quadrangular series I felt I will get a call-up since I did well against Thailand and Bangladesh. But after that lockdown happened and I worked harder since the selection panel also changed,” she says.

Yastika Bhatia, Shafali Verma

The future is now: Yastika Bhatia (left) and Shafali Verma’s 101-run stand in the 3rd ODI helped set base for India’s 265-run chase against Australia. © Getty Images

Bhatia’s father, Harish, converted a portion of their society’s parking lot into a net facility and helped her with the throwdowns.

“My father said you will get the call this year only. But I felt I have to do so much more. But he had the intuition and it came true in February and I was truly overjoyed.”

Bhatia was called-up for the home series against South Africa early this year. She was in Rajkot when she got the news.

“I checked my phone and a group was created for Indian team versus South Africa,” she reminisces. “I was delighted that I have got a chance. I called my father first and he had tears in his eyes. I was also getting emotional and when I met Santosh sir, I cried a lot. It was an emotional moment for me.”

Although she didn’t make her debut then, Bhatia was richer for the experience of having trained and interacted with India’s top cricketers. And her determination to don the India cap only grew stronger after she was excluded from the touring party to England.

“She was dejected to not get to play against South Africa,” says Chaugule. “She realised she needed to focus on some more aspects of her game. She began diligently following the schedule given by the Team India trainer then.”

“Despite not making the cut for the England tour, she was at it and worked hard consistently. She used to run even in rain, just so that she could stick to the schedule.”

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“Yastika is very strong-minded. If she wants something, she would strive hard to achieve it. Bahut ziddi hai (She is very determined),” adds a very proud Chaugule.

***

In the camp in Bengaluru ahead of the tour Down Under, Bhatia was very confident. Her batting had gone up a notch since the series against South Africa and that meant that she was on the plane to Australia.

Three ODIs. 102 runs. Strike rate of 76.11. One half century.

Given much of the focus against South Africa and England was on India’s middle-order and strike rates, Bhatia’s return from the ODIs against Australia should please the powers that be, in the lead up to the World Cup next year. Much like Brooke Halliday’s addition to New Zealand’s line-up comprising of a majority of right-handers save for Amy Satterthwaite, Bhatia’s inclusion in the Indian middle-order gives them the much-needed variety.

Chaugule observed that the young kid that walked in to YSC was hungry for cricket and quick-grasper. It is this hunger and persistence that has helped Bhatia don the India jersey. It is now up to her to keep the appetite going.

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