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At a special screening of Sachin: A Billion Dreams, with an entire movie hall booked exclusively for young cricketers, you would expect the first chant that goes up to be “Sachin, Sachin (dhan dhan dhan).” It wasn’t, though. At Pune’s iconic Mangala Talkies, there were cries of “Rahul, Rahul” in the aisles, complete with the “dhan dhan dhan” after it.

Two months ago, Rahul Tripathi wasn’t even on the list of players who were put up for the IPL auction. Now, he is suddenly Pune’s most famous sportsperson, and the guest of honour at Mangala. So naturally, as we sat down for a chat near the pavilion of his home club Deccan Gymkhana, the first question was about how he handled the fame.

“I’m happy that my efforts are being recognised, but life has not changed much,” he said. It was not hard to believe him, watching the way he greeted the groundsman when he walked into the pavilion.

Soft spoken and exceedingly polite, Tripathi comes across as a young man who is enjoying the ride without losing his balance. And balance is exactly what he helped bring to the Rising Pune Supergiant franchise, when he provided blistering starts at the top of the order. He finished as the second highest run getter for RPS, with 391 runs, behind only Steve Smith (472), playing two matches less. Most impressive, though, was his strike rate of 146, and his intrepid approach to batting.

“This IPL I was just going out and enjoying myself, not thinking too much [about] what will happen,” he said. “I was just watching the ball and trying to hit it. Just reacted to the ball, I didn’t think too much. That was something that helped me.”

Not quite out of nowhere

Before IPL 10, Tripathi was unknown to the rest of the world. He was just a name on a scorecard that appeared in Maharashtra’s lower middle order. But for RPS coach Stephen Fleming and his RPS staff, it was the second year in a row that they had had a look at him.

“Last year also I went for the trials,” said Tripathi, who was not picked for IPL 9. “After the trials, I looked at the players who did get selected and thought about areas I can try to improve. I spoke to Fleming sir, and he asked me to work on keeping my shape while batting, and getting some physical fitness behind me.”

Tripathi showed great improvements in both those departments, and when last minute trials were arranged days before this year’s auction, he impressed the powers that be. Just three days later, watching the auction after a training session, Tripathi saw himself being picked up by his home franchise, after being drafted into the auction at the last minute.

When asked if he expected a call up, he tried hard to not sound conceited as he said, “Yes, I did.” He added, “I tried to give my best and it went well. I played my shots well and the coaches were happy. So I had a belief that the coaches might pick me up. I was fortunate enough that they gave me this opportunity.”

He went on to share his experiences being the next big thing in India’s biggest domestic tournament.

Taking on the quicks

The fearlessness with which he stepped down the track to quick bowlers like Nathan Countrer-Nile and Umesh Yadav was deliberately brewed in the nets first. “When playing first-class cricket, you are facing [balls at] 125 kph – 130 kph,” he said. “So, I practiced by reducing the distance between the stumps, getting the bowlers to bowl from a little ahead. Then, in the RPS camp three to four days before the IPL, I tried to face their pace bowlers a lot, and I adjusted.”

In a team with some of the world’s best fielders, the lesser ones are more easily exposed. This was not the case with Tripathi, though, as he held his own in the company of Ben Stokes, Steve Smith and Ajinkya Rahane.

“Physical fitness helped a lot in my fielding”, Tripathi said. He also put it down to hours and hours spent drilling in the basics. “When you keep doing those things again and again, you don’t feel the pressure fielding in front of 35,000 people and with so much noise,” he added.

The 26-year-old breaks into one of his more affable smiles when he talks about pitting himself against the overseas players in fielding practice. “I was trying to match up to them, which is not possible,” he said. “Ben is a great fielder,” he added, beaming as he talked about his English teammate.

“When I started our camp, I tried to show them that I’m quick too. But I was hurrying too much, so I was fumbling a bit. Then the coaches told me, just do what you do well. Slowly, it came.”

Learnings from the dressing room

“Sharing the dressing room with a legend like Mahi bhai [MS Dhoni], I just kept looking at him,” said Tripathi. “I was scared, very nervous and I used to be quiet at the start. Slowly, I got into it.”

He picked out Adam Zampa as the team jester in the RPS dressing room. “Zampa was very funny; he was always up to something. If there was music around, he would dance; he was always full of energy. Even Smith had his little moments.”

“I believe that most important would be the experiences I shared with those big players, especially Mahi bhai, Smith, Ajuu bhai [Rahane]. Opening with Ajinkya bhai was a dream.”

Like new employees bring fresh ideas to a corporate set up, the IPL brings together players who don’t usually play in the same team, facilitating a knowledge transfer. But according to Tripathi, even knowing that some things are the same across team lines can build confidence.

“Sometimes you may be doing things correctly, but you don’t have that belief,” he said. “But when you go there, share your experiences with the other players, see them doing those things, then you start believing in yourself.

What next for Rahul Tripathi?

“I think my life has taken a new turn” he said, a statement testified by the second interview crew waiting their turn to speak to him, and the young athletes hanging around hoping to take a selfie with him. Life since the IPL ended has been a whirlwind of felicitations and a pile of interviews, and Tripathi is looking forward to some serenity where he can reflect on the past two months.

Rahul Tripathi comes across as a young man who is enjoying the ride without losing his balance (Image credit: Snehal Pradhan)
Rahul Tripathi comes across as a young man who is enjoying the ride without losing his balance (Image credit: Snehal Pradhan)

“I’ll try some day to think about it, how I went about it,” he said. “What were the areas I can improve, so that next year I can give a lot more than I did this year. It was a dream experience, and that dream experience is now a great learning experience. Now, I have to implement all the things I have learned.”

Consistency is a word he has used many times in our chat, and he returns to it at the end as well. He is determined to be more than a one-season wonder. “I would like to be remembered. I would like to play on. So it’s an important phase from now on for cricket.”