Jofra Archer had just returned into the attack in the 13th over with a waist-high full-toss for compatriot Liam Livingstone. The batters had crossed over for a single when the no-ball call was made, and a section of a very partisan home crowd let out a collective sigh. Livingstone on strike for the Free Hit would have brought some fireworks. Instead they got Jitesh Sharma – uncapped for India and only 21 IPL games under his belt before tonight. Moments later though the same group was on its feet, cheering for each of the 29-year-old’s three boundaries as he laid into Archer with a massive 21-run over.
With 200+ totals becoming the new norm, especially on batting paradises like the one in Mohali, attack from the get go has pretty much been teams’ batting mantra. Punjab Kings, who subscribed to the go-big-or-go-home policy last IPL, are no different. At a time when the hosts sought an escape – reeling at 99/3 after 12 overs with Piyush Chawla’s 2-29 keeping them in check – Jitesh’s intent was amply on display when he decided to take on the opposition’s lead pacer, albeit not at the top of his game currently, instead of just looking to pass on the strike to a well-set Livingstone at the other end.
Only two balls into his knock and facing Archer for the first time, Jitesh threw his hands at everything. The first one was a length ball outside off, punched down the ground to the long-off ropes. The second, a slower one, was squirted off a thick outside edge and just evaded the short third. He was lucky to see the deep-midwicket shell one when he pulled Archer’s short ball next, but those couple of close shaves early on failed to deter him from taking apart MI’s bowling. What followed was yet another audacious batting display from the Kings’ keeper-batter, who went on to make his IPL career-best 49* to justify the team’s decision to hand him a promotion.
The fact that he was batting with one of the best strikers of the ball at the other end didn’t make him reconsider strategies. If anything, Jitesh made Livingstone seem the second fiddle in their century partnership early on, striking at 230 for the first 10 balls he faced. It was Jitesh’s arrival and the early counterattack against Archer that injected much-needed impetus to the innings, and Livingstone just rode on the momentum to make it a dual assault on the hapless MI bowling. The numbers may reveal only half the picture – the pair together added 119, of which Livingstone made 59 as compared to Jitesh’s 49 – but what the scoreboards won’t reveal is how that 13th over flicked the switch for Punjab.
It may have eventually been in a losing cause – outmatched by an equally ruthless display of power-hitting from Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan in the 215-run chase – but it was enough to vindicate the management’s call.
“He’s developing nicely; he’s gained a lot of confidence as the tournament’s gone on and, and that reflected in where we used him tonight,” PBKS assistant coach Brad Haddin said of Jitesh’s enterprising 49 not out. “He’s played really well in the previous games, where he’d only face 10 balls. We’ve seen once he goes out there, he actually has no fear of the game. He likes to take the game on, and we wanted to give him that opportunity tonight to face more balls while he’s in a bit of form,” Haddin revealed.
A base price buy at INR 20 lakh in the 2022 mega auction, when the franchises had enough purse to splurge, Jitesh went to PBKS after they were the only ones to place a bid. With the likes of Jonny Bairstow and Bhanuka Rajapaksha in their squad, Jitesh wasn’t Punjab’s first-choice keeper. Nor was he the team’s designated finisher ahead of a domestic slugger like Shahrukh Khan or the most recent U19 World Cup winner Raj Bawa. But with 17-ball cameo of 26 on debut against Chennai Super Kings, that featured three sixes and plenty of intent, he went on to make both those positions his own by the time their campaign ended. And, he hasn’t looked back since.
Among the retainees ahead of the 2023 edition, his second year playing for the Punjab franchise is already an improvement on the first – he’s tallied 239 runs in 10 innings thus far, averaging 26.56 and striking just a shade below 166. In a team of power-hitters and a season of slogging, Jitesh has the most number of sixes (16) for the Kings.
In his 20-innings-young IPL career, Jitesh has maintained a 150+ strike-rate on 12 occasions. His strike-rate in death overs this year has been a highly impressive 220. The spunk in his batting obviously hadn’t escaped the management’s attention, and earned him a promotion in Mohali against his former team, ahead of some of Punjab’s million-dollar buys – Sam Curran and Shahrukh.
“The one thing which we found with Jitesh is that – obviously he’s building really well and starting to mature into his game – but he’s one of those players got a unique ability to go from ball one,” Haddin said. “I don’t know if he’s got the guts because he’s got his keeping to fallback on and you get that freedom to play. But his ability to go from ball one was something that we wanted to use tonight higher in the order, and it worked… I think we’ll see a lot more of those sort of innings.”
Despite getting more than eight overs to play with, rather than the usual handful of deliveries when arriving as a finisher, Jitesh backed his style and did not shed the attacking approach. It was down to his confidence in his own abilities, something that Haddin stressed the team had consciously decided to back.
“Our plan was to not do anything different. We just wanted to give him the opportunity to play exactly the same way but face more balls,” Haddin said of the message to the keeper-batter whilst handing the promotion. “In the previous games we’ve seen he’s got a bit of rhythm and tempo in his game and we just want him to play exactly the same way. We’ve got a deep batting lineup, we’ve got Sam and other guys behind him. So if he got out, so be it, but we just wanted to give him the opportunity to see what he could do if he faced 30 balls.”
His consistency and clean, fearless striking has been noticed by the Indian team management as well, earning Jitesh a maiden T20I call-up earlier this year. Though he’s yet to get that debut cap, but with India’s frontline keeper-batter Rishabh Pant expected to spend more time on his recovery from the car crash, Jitesh may well have a chance to don the India blue sooner.
Yes, there are the likes of Ishan Kishan, Sanju Samson and even KL Rahul ahead in the pecking order, but what separates Jitesh from the pack is that in an already top-heavy set-up he’s a better like-for-like replacement of Pant lower down the order, barring the left-handedness. Even with Pant back in the fray in the long run, the Vidharbha finisher has the potential to replicate for India what Dinesh Karthik did for RCB, earning himself a national recall not so long ago. Hit the ball hard, and hit from the word go.