It was Apr 17, 2012. The scene was Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur when a certain young lad from the same city stood numb, unsure about what the fuss was about. Johan Botha and the rest of the Rajasthan Royals' squad raced to the middle to jump on him, with Brad Hodge running for a high-five.
Dishant Yagnik, the batsman in question, was still numb, for he couldn’t believe he hit the mighty Dale Steyn for two consecutive boundaries in the last over to consign Deccan Chargers yet another loss in what turned out to be a forgettable season for them. The crazy scene that unfolded, with Botha jumping on Yagnik, remained to be one of the best moments for the Royals in the IPL history. And for the Rajasthan veteran, who was playing his first match of the season, it was the apogee of his career.
“In my head, I had already decided to go for a big one and Brad Hodge, who was at the non-striking end, probably sensed that form my body language. He instantly came to me and told me not to hit the ball too hard as Steyn was going to bowl a hard length. His advice worked wonders as I hit two boundaries and we won the game. Such was Hodge’s experience. I was numb and I did not realize when Botha jumped over me. That was surely my best memory as a player,” Yagnik reminisced about one of the most satisfying days of his life in an exclusive conversation with SportsCafe.
A domestic veteran, who has numerous accolades with his state Ranji Trophy side, including two title-winning campaigns, Yagnik’s journey with Rajasthan Royals spanned over four seasons from 2011 to 2014 in which he was privy to multiple culture changes, and he was also a part of the side that saw some of the darkest days too. The epilogue of his career also coincided with the Royals’ absence from the IPL set-up due to their two-year ban, a time in which the keeper decided to hang his boots from professional cricket to embrace the life of a coach.
Despite being a keeper all his life, who did his job with perfection and utmost dedication, Yagnik knew that he was more than just that. Subsequently, it turned out to be a matter of being at the right place at the right time as the Royals picked him up once again, this time as their fielding coach, after their return to the fold in the 2018 edition.
“If you are a fielding coach you have to be physically fit because you have to keep hitting the ball for hours in IPL. I have been a fitness freak since childhood and after my retirement when I entered the Rajasthan Royals’ practise session, the manner in which I showcased my fielding ability and the quality with which I took fielding practice, within two days it was decided that I would be the fielding coach. Because I had been keeping for them for five years and then I started helping players like Sanju Samson and Jos Buttler. It was the right time as I retired in December and the camp was in March.”
Yagnik’s story itself provided a sneak-peek to the Rajasthan Royals philosophy, with the Indian youngsters having a strong voice in the league. Be it a certain Sanju Samson or Ankit Sharma, or more recently, the likes of Yashasvi Jaiswal and Kartik Tyagi, the Royals have always backed the youngsters to come good, and that culture allowed the coaching staff to have a more open-end discussion with the players, irrespective of their age and experience. That knowledge, which Yagnik garnered in his first four years with the team, has come good for him, with players like Samson and Ben Stokes speaking highly of him.
“Actually it was not that difficult as I already knew the team culture of the Royals. One good thing about them was that each player in the team had a voice. The opinion of an 18-year-old who was new to the team was as important as that of the captain’s. These young players were made comfortable and were made to deliver. Similarly, even I was made to feel comfortable when I first entered the Royals’ dressing room as they treated me like family. I continued the same trend when I turned into a fielding coach. We have motivational chats in team buses so whatever I learned when I first entered the team I passed on the same to the youngsters,” the fielding coach stated.
“It may look difficult from the outside as players from foreign countries and many Indian stars come together but if you all have set one target and one goal of winning the IPL or qualifying for the playoffs then it is not that difficult. At first, we introduce our team culture in the team meeting and once when a player gets comfortable in the team environment and gets the sense that he belongs here then there is smooth sailing for the team.”
Often an unassuming character but with a solid presence in the Rajasthan Royals’ dressing room, Yagnik was entrusted with the responsibility of mentoring Samson, when the Kerala wicket-keeper joined the franchise fresh in 2013. He soon handed over the gloves, with the former’s last appearance coming in 2014, but he vividly remembers the growth of a cricketer many thought would go on to fill the colossal shoes of MS Dhoni. That hasn’t happened yet but Yagnik is still hopeful that it would pay off one day, for he saw the spark much earlier.
“Sanju is a potential superstar,” Yagnik said. “I still remember when in 2013 I had seen him for the first time at a training camp and I was opening with him. Kamran Khan was fit again and he used to bowl 135-140 kmph and so I told Sanju that I will take the strike. However, he told me not to worry and that he would play him well. He absolutely smashed the bowler to all parks and scored some 64 runs off 30-odd balls. His elegance and stroke-making showed that he exactly knew his game. As far as his keeping is concerned, if he gets more regular opportunities and if he practices well, then I personally think that in the ODI and T20 format, he is the future of Indian cricket.”
No Royals story can have a definitive ending without a Rahul Dravid tale and I was eager to tap into Dishant’s head to share his Dravid memories, for he must have a lot. And it didn’t turn out to be a hagiography - rather, an honest comprehension of what the former India and Royals skipper meant to youngsters, with his modesty and accessibility making things easier for every junior player in the side.
“When I saw Rahul Bhai for the first time, I was starstruck and I didn’t know what to say. But instead, he came forward and talked to us by calling us by our names and that showed how humble a person he was. He was ready to dissect our game and put in hours for improving it and giving valuable feedback. One more great quality of Rahul Bhai was he knew exactly when to use which player,” Dishant revealed.
“When we were playing the Mumbai Indians in Jaipur, we were off to a fantastic start scoring 65 runs in 5.3 overs. Rahul Bhai then told me to go in. At first, I did not understand his mindset as he himself was in such a rich vein of form. However, when I scored those quickfire 37 runs, I realised what a great mindset he had and how exactly he knew to use which player in which situation. While coaching Pondicherry too I have taken this learning from him and even I think about match situations and which player will be used where. This was great learning that I got from a great man.”
This might seem like an overstatement, but the passion with which Dishant spoke about Rajasthan Royals symbolises how invested he is in the process of managing the franchise. It has been almost a decade now since the love affair has started but none has been lost in the process. The ongoing Coronavirus outbreak might have delayed the IPL, but the Junoon with which he is waiting for it, you would be surprised if he sleeps peacefully without a summer of IPL now. His life would have been a lot different in a parallel universe.