Michael Papps, two Crowes and a Hick. It sounds like the beginning of a very surreal ‘walk into a bar’ joke – in fact, it’s an eclectic quartet of batsmen with one mutual achievement.
They’re the only four men to score 1000 runs in a Plunket Shield season. Or at least, they were the only four.
Because with an edge through the cordon off World Cup Cult Hero™ Matt Henry, Bharat Popli took his score against Canterbury to 32, and his Shield season to 1000.
Last month, Popli’s eventual season haul of 1149 saw him named Northern Districts’ Batsman and Cricketer of the Year – and, remarkably, NZC Domestic Cricketer of the Year too, despite playing a full total of zero limited-overs matches for his province.
For a man in his third season of First Class cricket – only his second as a contracted player – Popli’s achievements have seen him stand out as one of the most promising talents around the New Zealand scene. Indeed, according to both TVNZ and the New Zealand Herald, he’s worth considering as a Test prospect.
“Obviously you’ve got ambitions to play at the highest level, but it’s nothing about that I’m thinking about at this stage. I’m just happy that I’m able to play cricket, and get paid for playing it, to be honest – I’m just grateful for that. I’ll just keep doing that, if anything happens then so be it, if not then I’m still happy.”
For higher honours to even come into conversation proves just how far Popli has come in the last couple of seasons. As of December 2013 – less than two-and-a-half years ago – he was yet to play a game for Northern Districts. He’d shown promise in Minor Association cricket and for Northern Districts A, but Daryl Mitchell and Joe Carter were the anointed talents.
Player availability fell his way, and later that month he got the call-up – replacing Daniel Vettori in the side – to play Auckland at Eden Park Outer Oval. It was a good game to be a batsman; Mitchell ran up a hundred, Daniel Flynn 188, Carter 95. Martin Guptill followed suit with a not-out 161, Gareth Hopkins chimed in with an unbeaten 77.
Auckland ended up chasing over 400 in the fourth innings, losing just four wickets in the process, and crashing along at well over four-an-over.
For the debutant, it was a fairly inauspicious start. Although he was not-out each time Northern Districts declared, making 34 and 48, he’d barely got a chance to stretch his arms – and although he did bat fluently, it was EPOO. Reflecting on his entrance to First Class cricket, he hadn’t felt it a step too far.
“I think, skills wise you just get challenged for longer in certain aspects – it’s not something that’s too hard or anything like that, it’s just the consistency gets better, and the opposition are just a little bit tougher. Mentally, I think that’s the little change that you’ve got to do, you don’t get any easy spells – or, not as easy as in DA stuff.”
He had a reasonable first season: six games saw him make one half-century, and average in the mid-30s. Despite that, Popli was unimpressed with that start, terming it “pretty poor, to be honest”.
“I think it was just the mindset I was in, where I put a lot of pressure on myself and by the time those six games were done [..] I was pretty cooked. Mentally I wasn’t in a great place, but when it’s your first season everything’s quite new so it takes a little while to adjust.”
Northern Districts’ coach James Pamment suggested at the time that he’d “go great” the following summer:
“He’s got a very repeatable technique, a passion for scoring runs and shows a very good temperament for batting. He works hard on his game and will have learnt plenty during the six games he’s played for the Knights this summer.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite eventuate. Although he received his first domestic contract, Popli played just four First Class matches in 2014-15, averaging in the 20s.
It was always going to be a difficult season in which to make inroads – Daniel Flynn, as skipper, was the mainstay at the top of the order, joined by Dean Brownlie. Joe Carter’s first-season heroics meant he was more-or-less assured of his place, despite a horror run of form. Daryl Mitchell was persisted with, and Anton Devcich hit plenty of runs, while Brad Wilson had an excellent swansong before his move south. The likes of BJ Watling, Scott Kuggeleijn and Mitchell Santner, meanwhile, clogged up the lower-middle order.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t perform well, I think that earns you the right to get selected. It was a disappointing season, to not perform as well as I would’ve hoped. But you just have to take it as it comes.”
Regardless, it was still a major achievement to have earned his first contract. It came much later than it does for many professional cricketers, and it arrived at the right moment for Popli – much later and his choices may have been significantly constrained.
“That was definitely a point in time where I needed to make a decision. Beforehand I’d always had uni, so that kept me busy – or if cricket wasn’t going well, I had something else. Whereas I’d just come out of uni and finished everything, so I needed to earn a living and all that sort of stuff. So the contract came at a good time, if it was a year delayed, then who knows where I would’ve been.”
After that season, Popli made the decision not to jet off overseas for the off-season (in 2013 he’d spent the winter in the Nottinghamshire Premier League). Instead, as he had in 2014, he stayed in New Zealand to work on technique. Matt Horne was a huge influence during this time, and Popli regards “the way he approached certain aspects” as being a major factor in his form over 2015-16.
“The work I did with him in Auckland over the pre-season really set me up well for the season […] he’s easy going, relaxed, but had a lot to offer – and wasn’t afraid to share his opinions, which I find quite energising. That was definitely a big turning point.”
Suddenly, with October 2015 upon him, Popli found himself unable to do anything other than score runs. Northern Districts’ first game of the season, at Seddon Park against Wellington, saw him reach 91 as his side went awfully close to victory – only Dane Hutchinson and Brent Arnel putting on a remarkable 81 (unbeaten) for the 10th wicket salvaged a draw.
Popli was undone by a straight ball from Jeetan Patel in that game: Popli went back, was caught in front, and was quite clearly disappointed with falling short of a maiden First Class ton.
Two games later, after the Twenty20 window had concluded, he made up for it with a breezy 116 against Auckland. He hit 14 boundaries – the pull shot was auditioned, he showed examples of straight and cover drives, and even punched a few off the back foot.
He reached his first hundred off 148 balls, having batted for over three hours.
“I came close and got 90-odd a couple of games before that, so I was in a good space. I just enjoyed it, I went out and batted and just didn’t really worry about anything else.”
It came only a matter of days after he’d proven himself against international opposition – opening the batting for the New Zealand Cricket President’s XI, he took on Sri Lanka’s battery of bowlers and won. Dammika Prasad, Nuwan Pradeep, Suranga Lakmal, Dushmantha Chameera, Angelo Mathews and Rangana Herath make a very useful bowling attack, but Popli and Ben Smith put the Sri Lankans to the sword with a 179-run opening partnership.
“That was an exciting opportunity, which I was pretty grateful to be a part of. Going down there I was pretty nervous, but coming up against an international side and being able to perform was something I’ll look back on in future, but for now just trying to focus on each game.”
But if 79 against Sri Lanka, and a maiden First Class ton a fortnight later were achievements in their own right, it was only to get better as the months passed. McLean Park saw him make 46 and 133; a trip to Dunedin saw him fall twice, but a return to Hamilton saw the return of the runs with 55 and 94. The stand-out came in the third-to-last match, however, when he hit 172 against Central Districts.
Doug Bracewell and Bevan Small opened the bowling, with Ajaz Patel – top Plunket Shield wicket-taker for 2015-16 – tucked in behind them. Northern’s eventual victory by 115 runs paid testament to the value of his near-eight hours of batting.
He finished with 1149 First Class runs for the season, averaging 67.58 and making three centuries – to go with another seven fifties. When it’s considered that in his first ten First Class matches he made 396 runs at 28, the difference is remarkable.
“Coming from two pretty average seasons to be able to contribute and put some numbers on the board, it makes you feel like you can perform, that kind of thing. That’s the biggest thing to come out of it.”
But while Popli had huge personal success, it was a poor season all round for the Northern Districts side. Their end placing in the Plunket Shield, fourth, proved a point – they’d got themselves into good positions several times, but struggled to close matches out. In T20 cricket they came fifth, and did no better in the Ford Trophy.
“I think the boys are set up really well, the environment is really good. We had about four games we could have really turned it around and won in the last few sessions, but in finishing it we lacked. I think the more times we put ourselves in that position, we’ll learn how to finish games off and hopefully come out on the right side.”
One thing that was apparent for Northern Districts throughout the Ford Trophy was the lack of runs – while Anton Devcich punched and pulled his way to an average over 50, and Dean Brownlie and Daryl Mitchell added handy contributions, at least three (if not four) of ND’s losses came because the batsmen didn’t put enough on the board.
So it’s perhaps surprising that Popli is yet to make is one-day debut for Northern Districts – the association’s in-form batsman, making runs at a good clip, yet not getting a berth in a runs-light Ford Trophy side. Although Popli professes that he’s “not a fan of goals,” breaking his way into that side is something he’s targeting.
“That’s a big focus, that’s kind of the reason I’m going overseas [this off-season], to develop my one-day game and come back with a better understanding of what my game looks like in the one-day environment. That’s something to work on, I’ve got a long way to go, but hopefully it comes right.”
His season with Tenterden Cricket Club in Kent – playing alongside County talents like Adam Ball and Sam Weller – will see him carrying a much greater weight of expectation than he has in seasons past. Anyone who puts together 1000+ runs in a ten-match summer is going to attract a fair bit more attention than most, and it’s definitely a big leap from the days of being one of the crew in “Kane’s team” at Tauranga Boys’ College.
“It was pretty cool, we were just Kane’s team kind of thing, that’s how it’s going to be, but he was always there to help out guys or anything like that, so in that way it was pretty cool.”
Popli certainly wasn’t quite the young prodigy some others from that time were, and although he made Northern Districts Under-19, he wasn’t able to get into national age-group teams. Popli holds no disappointment about that looking back: “Obviously it was disappointing at the time, but looking back if you do well in men’s stuff you catch up.”
He got into the Bay of Plenty side when still at high school, however, showing the ability he did possess, and was exposed to what he calls “a great association”. James Pamment, now his Northern Districts coach, and Ben Williams were both big influences on the young Popli.
“James Pamment has obviously had a massive influence on my cricketing career, from the time he picked me into the Bay side when I was still at school. I didn’t really think I was good enough for it, and he probably saw something which I didn’t, so all the credit really goes to him.”
But it’s not just coaches that help establish a young player – Joe Carter, who came into the Bay of Plenty side around the same time as Popli, also debuted for Northern Districts in the same season, and received his first ND contract at the same time. According to Popli, they “definitely” have an understanding on-field, having played alongside one another so much.
“We’ve trained a lot together; we’ve roomed together quite often as well. Mutual respect for each other, and understanding, and it’s always awesome playing with him.”
Much like his Northern Districts teammate Ish Sodhi, Popli moved from India as a child. While Sodhi was four when his family shifted, Popli was 12 when he made the move from Delhi to Tauranga. Although he’d played a bit of cricket in India, it was “nothing really too serious”.
“It was just as it is, everyone plays cricket over there. I just started playing a bit more seriously when we got here.”
India is, however, the place where his love of the game was born. Popli’s father played for Delhi University, and he recalls watching his father playing as being one of the sparks for his passion for cricket.
So when he continues making runs for Northern Districts – or maybe even gets a sniff of national honours – it’ll be with much the same passion that turns every kid in India towards the sport.
“We had about eight cousins and stuff living in close proximity. It was pretty good – it was cricket everywhere, and we played just about any sport. That’s where it came from.”