“Ask him to walk on water today, and he will say, ‘okay! How many kilometres?’ Ask him to jump from a cliff in the form he’s in, and he’ll say, ‘here’s your parachute. I don’t need it.’”

Harsha Bhogle’s words during current Indian men’s team head coach Rahul Dravid’s solitary T20I appearance in 2011 resonates with his namesake, a decade down the lane.

While Royal Challengers Bangalore’s win over Gujarat Titans has knocked Sunrisers Hyderabad out of the playoffs race, one player has been the bright spot for SRH in an otherwise topsy-turvy campaign — Rahul Tripathi.

On Tuesday, Tripathi displayed his appetite for big scores again, helping Sunrisers Hyderabad stay mathematically alive in the IPL with his creatively aggressive batting against Mumbai Indians in the presence of team India and MI skipper Rohit Sharma.

Walking in at 18 for one in SRH’s must-win game, Tripathi sped off the blocks with two exquisite shots that make him an exciting watch during a T20 match. A nimble shuffle and lofted sweep off left-arm spinner Sanjay Yadav got him his first boundary. A ball later, Tripathi played an inside-out punch over cover for another four while the two deliveries held marginal differences in line of the ball, off the same length. He displayed his range in the next over when he carted Jasprit Bumrah over mid-wicket with a crunching swivel-pull and hit two more fours to cap off a superb PowerPlay.

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And yet, Tripathi’s annoyance with himself after being dismissed for 76 off 44 balls was telling. In what has nearly been his most productive Indian Premier League season so far, Tripathi’s 393 runs in 13 innings have come at a rapid strike rate of 161.73 — the best among all Indians with at least 300 runs. Tripathi’s mantra of aggressive T20 batting with the occasional hit-or-miss approach is a concept that is yet to find mainstream acceptance among India’s cricketing experts.

 

When Bhogle asked Tripathi at the post-match presser on which – 393 runs scored or 160-plus strike-rate – held more significance, Tripathi said: “I think the mixture of both. It’s important sometimes, the strike rate, but the runs scored for the team are always special, and to win games, that is more important.”

Game changer

Since springing a surprise in his debut IPL season with the now-defunct Rising Pune Supergiant in 2017, Tripathi has been teetering on the edge However, his fortunes have seen an uptick in recent times. Former Maharashtra batter Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Pune’s assistant coach during Tripathi’s debut season, believes the Sunrisers batter is reaping the rewards of his solid work ethic.

“When he came in his first year, he was obviously pretty new to an environment like the IPL. But within that season, he showed that he was gradually improving, learning as he played every game. There were things that you could tell, and he would incorporate them in a very short period of time. We can see that he still continues to do that. And this season, it has all come together for him,” said Kanitkar, currently associated with the National Cricket Academy (NCA).

In two seasons at the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2020 and 2021 and this year at Sunrisers, Tripathi has evolved into an impact player while floating through the batting order. Nearly 60 per cent of Tripathi’s runs (604 of 1020) over the last three seasons have come in wins. While he has batted in five positions across 40 innings since the 2020 IPL, Tripathi’s best has been reserved for the number three slot, where he has smashed 814 runs in 29 innings – second only to Sanju Samson.

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Tripathi gave another insight into his anchor-aggressor approach during the post-match chat. “[In a T20 game], there cannot be a moment where you can really slow down. At least a single or double is very important, and the game needs to keep continuing. That’s what I keep focusing on. Every ball is an event, so I just look at that ball and see what can be the best result,” Tripathi said.

Kanitkar believes batters in the mould of Tripathi could become a vital addition to any T20 side at the crucial number three position. Kanitkar elaborated: “I think it’s a very important role (anchor-attacker at number three) in T20s. As long as they are able to maintain a strike rate of around 130 in that initial period, it becomes a crucial role, especially when the teams are batting deep. If you’re somebody who can keep the game moving and attack when needed, it gives stability to the batting side.”

Tripathi has dealt with pace and spin with aplomb. Since the 2021 season, only four batters have scored 700-plus runs at a strike-rate above 140 — he is in the company of Jos Buttler, Samson and Prithvi Shaw.

Kanitkar rated Tripathi’s range of shotmaking as the striking feature of his batsmanship. “His strength is that he is able to hit those normal cricketing shots for sixes. Over extra cover, over cover… shots that you don’t associate with power. And he’s able to execute it against top-class bowlers, both spin and fast. It’s not always the mid-wicket boundary that he’s trying to target, and he can also manufacture shots like the ramp and reverse ramps,” Kanitkar said.

Kanitkar believes an India cap is around the corner for the 31-year-old Tripathi. “He is definitely doing well now to get the selector’s attention. Or I’ll put it this way, the way he is batting, it won’t be a surprise if they pick him. He is on the right track,” the 2022 U-19 World Cup-winning coach remarked.

 

Tripathi also finds able support from his Maharashtra state team coach, Santosh Jedhe. Jedhe is delighted with the rapid strides Tripathi has made in the big league. He noted that Tripathi was committed to improving his fitness and technique during this year’s domestic season, where he scored 446 runs in 11 innings with a hundred and six half-centuries across formats. “He is a hard worker, a very good boy. He has focussed a lot on his fitness and always keeps himself busy, just like the way he bats,” Jedhe said.

Jedhe is particularly fond of Tripathi’s knock against Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy earlier this year. While Tripathi’s unbeaten 123 off 110 balls went in vain, Jedhe was happy that his advice had worked for the SRH batter in the long run.

“It was a must-win game for us. A chance for the knockouts was in our hands, but we fell out.

“Rahul has this tendency to get fidgety and shake around in his stance. He had too many things rushing through his mind while going to bat. That’s probably the only thing I’ve asked him to work on during the season. Before that knock against UP, I asked him to stay still and calm at the crease, and he has carried that to the IPL as well,” Jedhe said.

Jedhe, a force to reckon with in Maharashtra cricket in the ’90s, believes times are changing for the state with a pronounced presence in the IPL.

Maharashtra’s second wind

Despite a host of legends starring in its ranks over the preceding century, Maharashtra cricket had slipped down the pecking order, with Mumbai, which has dominated the domestic scene since initiation and Vidarbha — with its brief triumphant spells in recent years — enjoying the upper hand.

Tripathi’s elevated success in the IPL, alongside Chennai Super Kings duo Ruturaj Gaikwad (Orange Cap in 2021) and Mukesh Choudhary (16 wickets in 12 matches), is now helping Maharashtra recover lost sheen.

 

“These are good times for Maharashtra cricket,” Jedhe said. “Ruturaj has been doing well in IPL and domestic cricket. Mukesh [Choudhary] is now getting to learn from the big boss at CSK, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. We also have the young Hangargekar coming up and Ankit Bawne, who has done well in the longer formats. I believe there’s more to come from Maharashtra next year,” Jedhe added.

 

On Tripathi and his Maharashtra teammates, he said, “They are what you call ‘lambi race ka ghoda’ (one who’s in it for the long haul). Now it’s only about getting the right push and the right people to talk to about their game.”

Tripathi would hope the national selectors take a firm look at his credentials before India’s squad announcement on Sunday for the South Africa T20I series. “When you play cricket, it’s your dream to represent the country. If I keep doing well and they believe that I can win matches for my country, then definitely I will get the opportunity,” Tripathi said while concluding Tuesday’s post-match chat.

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