Over the last four years, Taniya Bhatia had made numerous impressions on me, and none of them as spectacular as the innings she played in Galle on Friday (September 14). She was always precocious; you don’t bat in the top three for your state senior team as a sixteen-year-old if you’re not. A long-term prospect, with some flair. But never begging to be picked.
In the season she was first promoted to India ‘A’, 2014-15, our paths crossed twice on the domestic circuit. On the first occasion, I found her edge early, and on the second, my opening partner found her stumps. For India A, she had four dismissals behind the stumps against New Zealand, and next to nothing with the bat. Talent, yes. But still, time for her to fit in at senior level, I thought.
That India A game was my last; I retired three months later. Since then I only followed Bhatia in glimpses from afar. This year I watched her in the Challenger Trophy (One day format, January), and on TV as she made her debut for India in T20Is in South Africa. Whatever I saw did little to change my first impressions.
A real opportunity came in the final of the Asia Cup in Malaysia in June. Bhatia came in at 62 for 5 in the fifteenth but got out to a wild swipe across the line from two yards outside the crease. Not much has changed in three years, I thought.
So when she walked out to bat in the 23rd over of the second ODI, with India reeling at 66 for 4, I wasn’t very confident. But when the facts changed, so did my opinion.
Fact: Bhatia’s first scoring shot was a lovely back foot off drive, to a ball, she might have looked to cut a few years ago. Her footwork was crisp, indicating a lack of nerves. A predominantly bottom-handed, horizontal bat player, that one shot showed that Bhatia had grown a bit.
Fact: Bhatia’s first boundary came from a sweep (there’s that bottom hand), a well-executed low percentage shot that got her four thanks to a misfield. But there was no hesitation in it, no inhibition. Despite the scoreline speaking of a shock upset, Bhatia backed herself with refreshing certainty.
Fact: Bhatia didn’t just choose the right shots, she chose the right time to play them. Having negotiated the spinners for 12 overs with soft hands and the odd hard cut, she switched gears as the medium pacers returned for the batting powerplay. The opener in Bhatia took over; when the ball was up in her half, she launched drives over the bowler and cover (her favourite area) exploiting the gaps the fielding restrictions created. By the time she was done, her 68 off 66 helped India to 219, and she looked nothing like the player I had seen before.
What had changed?
“After that India A series I had a couple of low-scoring seasons. That was very disappointing, and at one point I even felt like giving up cricket,” Bhatia revealed after the game. Encouragement from her mother saw her through. “She told me ‘You’re still very young. You’ve worked hard for 10 years, now is your time’.”
A middle child, Bhatia is closest to her mother because Sapna Bhatia was the one who ferried her to every training session, as her father was posted outside Chandigarh, where she lives. “Then before the 2017 World Cup, I was a part of the probable and did the camp with the team. Then I had a good domestic season and was picked for India A series.” Bhatia played three T20s against the visiting Bangladesh side. “That’s where it turned. It gave me that exposure, wearing the India jersey but without the full pressure of playing for India. I scored in one of the games there and then had a good score for my state team too.”
She puts her initial international performances in T20s down to nerves. “After the Asia Cup, I came back and worked more on my batting and my fitness as I knew there were ODIs coming up. There I thought I would get a chance to bat, as I could be asked to bat anywhere.”
But the biggest shift was mental. Bhatia describes herself as a reserved character (“South Africa me meri class lagi thi. The team sat down with me in the centre of a circle and I was asked to speak anything, as long as I spoke”) but is now more comfortable in the Indian set up. She took to reading books, something she usually hates, just to develop patience (she still wants to get an honours in English literature though). By nature a lazy individual, she approached the Challenger Trophy (T20 format, August) with better clarity of mind and application in training. The results showed in the final of that tournament, where Bhatia scored 28 off 17 in a pressure situation, edging past Sushma Verma for a place in the ODI squad. And given a chance at No. 6, she went on to become the first Indian ‘keeper to score a half-century since 2013. After five years of India picking ‘keepers irrespective of their batting, Bhatia has put a crack in that mould. Her glovework needs improvement though.
For a player whose biggest shift was in the mind, clarity in motivation makes a difference. “My mother compromised on a lot of things for me. When my father was transferred, she never went anywhere taki ‘Iski practice kharab na ho’ (so that her training does not suffer). Because of her, I’m here, and I’m playing for her.” If she forgets it, she need only look to the tattoo on her left forearm, just below her wrist. A trinity knot, modified to reflect a heart, one knot each for father, mother and child.