22-year-old Ishan Kishan talks to Wisden India staff writer Rohit Sankar about his coming-of-age season with Mumbai Indians and his call-up to the national team.
Kishan, still in his pads, sat distraught, quietly snuggled between two chairs in the dug out, his bat beside him, his eyes welling up, and his normally funky hair-do in disarray. In his first game of IPL 2020, Kishan had carried Mumbai Indians to the doorstep of victory against Royal Challengers Bangalore, before throwing it away one short of a hundred, and five short of Mumbai sealing an outrageous run chase.
At that point, not finishing things off was a habit Kishan had fallen into in domestic cricket, and after the loss in a Super Over to RCB, it felt like the young batsman had gone back into the same loop.
All that changed as the rest of IPL 2020 unfolded, where he led the Mumbai Indians run charts with 516 runs at an average of 57.33 and a strike-rate in the mid-140s. It was a perfect justification of the hefty price tag of INR 6.2 crore that Mumbai had shelled out on him, a whopping amount that saw his father admitted to hospital as his blood pressure shot up.
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) September 28, 2020
Within months, the turnaround is set to be complete with a national team debut in the offing. Speaking to Wisden India after being named in India’s T20I squad to face England, Kishan was understandably smiling from ear to ear.
“I’m very grateful to the selectors for showing faith in me. It’s any cricketer’s dream to play for the country and an Indian team call up was a really special feeling for me that cannot be put to words,” he says, revealing that his parents and brother were crying over the phone after the news came out. His promise was finally being fulfilled.
What exactly changed for him? Often criticised for being inconsistent, Kishan’s four-year long IPL career was waiting for one defining season, which came with last year’s bumper edition.
“Look, I don’t think there was any particular change [for IPL 2020],” Kishan says. “I just try to give it my best and put in the work. In the IPL it’s important to make the most of an opportunity whenever you get one. It’s the hunger and dedication to do well that helps you get across the line.”
“Opportunity”, “hunger” and “dedication” are the keywords here. He’s had plenty of opportunities and significant backing from the management since his arrival in the most successful IPL franchise, but his maiden season saw him go through a turbulent time. Mumbai Indians’ Netflix documentary, Cricket Fever, captured the anguish of the support system around a special talent unfulfilled – his dedication was questioned once he was found to be sloppy with his training and diet routine.
“You’re not applying yourself, you’re basically being a d***head,” Paul Chapman, MI’s strength and conditioning coach was captured telling Kishan on camera during a gym session as the rest of the squad members watched on.
Still, Mumbai were willing to back him wholeheartedly. Even after averaging 16.83 in seven games in IPL 2019, he was retained for the next season. That poor campaign served as another wake-up call for the former India U19 captain, who had seen his 2016 World Cup batchmates Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar establish themselves in at least one international format.
Kishan’s subsequent journey was quickly unwrapping into a tale of unfulfilled promise, one that led to a lot of frustration and mental battles. Emotions are always flying high with Kishan. As he himself says, he “switches between happy and upset” quite often, something even Mahela Jayawardene, head coach at MI, pointed out in the 2018 documentary.
“For Ishan, his emotions are way too high when he’s doing well… and then he has one bad game, he goes really low.”
Being the fringe player in a successful team is never easy, but here were Mumbai Indians, sticking by him through thick and thin, which catalysed a remarkable change in Kishan’s mindset.
“It’s amazing to have mentors like Rohit bhai and so many others in the dressing room, you get to learn so much and adapt your game accordingly. It [the Mumbai Indians stint] is the bedrock of my cricket. The mentorship I received from the coaches and Rohit and Zaheer bhai really helped me.
“It’s very important to be mentally strong, and to that extent you mature as a player with each year and I think the support of mentors and senior cricketers really helps in that regard. I think each IPL has been a learning experience for me. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to express myself and that helped me get the confidence moving forward.”
Kishan singles out the Pandya brothers and Kieron Pollard for honing his skills as a cricketer in the shortest format of the game. “A few interactions that helped my game so much has been with Hardik and Krunal Pandya and Pollard. I have seen how they plan a game, map their innings, confuse opposition by switching between big-hitting and strike rotation. I am a confidence person. Watching them and talking to them have played an integral role in giving me that confidence which has really helped my game a lot. I am really fortunate to have that kind of exposure.”
The influence of the Mumbai Indians “finishers” was evident as Kishan strolled to the top of the six-hitting charts in IPL 2020. His clean hitting against pace and spin, notably the manner in which he seemed undaunted against two South African seamers who had terrorised batting line-ups in the season, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, stood out in the season.
There was considerable background work to resuscitate his nose-diving career, and marry purpose to his natural flair. Pravin Amre, MI’s head talent scout in 2019, held one-on-one training sessions in a bubble in a private Mumbai ground with Kishan and Krunal Pandya among others before the squad flew out to UAE for the IPL. The focus with Kishan was on bringing a few technical adjustments to his six-hitting skills.
Bleed Blue 🇮🇳💙 pic.twitter.com/FvZfqfxGAK
— Ishan Kishan (@ishankishan51) March 10, 2021
He has since soared into India contention, ticking the boxes that they were looking for in their next set of T20 players. In the middle overs, Kishan went at a strike-rate of 146.45. It shot up to 232.61 in the death overs, both the best by any MI player in the season. He struck at 153.06 against fast bowling and 136.71 against spin, outstanding for middle-order batsmen who don’t often get the luxury of the powerplay overs.
Kishan also switched between batting in the middle-order and top-order seamlessly and even played the finisher role in quite a few games. It’s these qualities, and a mindset he has absorbed after sharing space with some of the game’s best finishers, that have seen Kishan overtake Sanju Samson in the India pecking order.
“How I play really depends on the situation of the game and team composition. Sometimes you’re required to accelerate in fifth gear from ball one, if it’s a flat track or if you’re chasing a big score. You’re expected to get your eye in and take your team across if it’s a low total, so it really depends on the situation. As a player, it’s also important to know your role and play according to that for the success of the team. But as often as I can, I look to clear the fence,” Kishan says.
However, squeezing into the actual Indian playing XI will still be quite a task. The current line-up, filled with stroke-makers, could see his opportunity likely restricted to No.6, if at all he plays.
“It’s always difficult to make it to the team, but that’s how it’s always been and for me,” Kishan says, pointing out that most of his IPL 2020 runs came in the middle-order while his recent blitz, a 94-ball 173 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy came when opening the batting for his state side, Jharkhand.
“I don’t mind playing anywhere, having switched between playing in the middle and top order in my career so far.”
There were reports of him failing the 2km-run fitness test ahead of the T20I series, but Kishan insists he isn’t lacking on the physical front.
“I don’t think I’m behind in physical fitness. We all understand how important fitness is in today’s day and age and it’s important to make it a part of your daily routine. I definitely feel more confident to play under pressure and I think the various domestic formats, India A games help you do well in that situation.”
Armed with newfound clarity and in a better headspace than he’s ever been before, Kishan, a huge MS Dhoni fan, wishes to emulate the former Indian skipper and Jharkhand teammate. Speaking to Wisden.com last year, Kishan had spoken of honing his consistency to “be like Mahi bhai“. It’s telling that Kishan ended IPL 2020 in Dhoni-esque fashion, remaining unbeaten in three of his last four innings – a 72* (47), 55*(30) and in the final, an unbeaten 19-ball 33 to take Mumbai home.
It’s unclear where Kishan fits into India’s T20I puzzle, but India would do well to back the youngster like Mumbai did. Mumbai has reaped the rewards, India can too.
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