India’s win against Australia in their World Cup 2023 opener wasn’t just about the Virat Kohli-KL Rahul partnership, but a collective team effort that went beyond the eleven players on the field. Aadya Sharma, at the venue, writes on the contribution of their “12th man”.

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By the 40th over, Kuldeep Yadav had his elbow on Raghu’s shoulder, standing by the boundary ropes, a helpful little prop to give his sapped body a mini-rest. Until then, Australia’s lower order had already been summoned, the main batters consumed and digested by India’s triple-spin force. It had been a real test for Australia, first dealing with some early movement, then extra bounce, patches of dust, and turn. And lastly, the heat, jarring enough to seep through the air-conned press box, and leaving the players with sweaty faces and tired bodies.

India’s pre-World Cup preparation had ended with an ODI series against the same opposition close to two weeks ago, with two non-starts in the rained-out warm-up matches stripping them of any sort of practice. It meant that the players came into their first game pretty much warmed up by net sessions, and no game time in the last ten days. The strain would have been greater on, among others, Jasprit Bumrah, Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul, all returning from substantial layoffs.

If it was up to them, Bumrah would have been wrapped in cotton wool by Indian fans, who have experienced the scare of losing their premier bowler to injury for several months. With hyperextended arms, hung shoulders and a distinctly casual gait, Bumrah walks rather gingerly when not bowling, and you’re always fearing if there’s a niggle around even when there isn’t.

After his first spell had accounted for Mitchell Marsh’s wicket, Bumrah was stationed right in front of the media box. Right by his side but just a couple of steps inside the boundary ropes was the unmistakable frame of D Raghavendra – or Raghu, as he is commonly known – India’s throwdown specialist for years, who has since added several other responsibilities to his CV.

On Sunday, he was India’s unsung hero, running around without catching a break, ensuring India’s players remained fresh.

Wearing a white hat and the orange Indian training kit, Raghu shadowed Bumrah for the first half of Australia’s innings. The temperatures had touched mid-thirties – the previous evening, it had rained around Chennai but not in Chepauk. The baking sun brought along the stickiness of the coast merely half a kilometre away. It would have been easy to cramp up if not hydrated enough, and Raghu, in relentless fashion, ensured it did not happen to India’s most valuable bowler.

Between deliveries, Bumrah would sip on the two bottles Raghu was carrying – one pink and the other blue. When David Warner and Steve Smith were batting together, the field changed nearly every ball, and so did Raghu’s placement, joined at times by fielding coach Rajiv Kumar. The blazing heat did little to deter him; his short figure could always be seen jogging around the circumference, tending to one side of the boundary, but keeping special focus on Bumrah. When Bumrah was bowling, the attention would shift to Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav or any of the others who needed hydration.

Later on, the bottles were replaced by an ice-pack. He would patiently wait to the side, looking for a signal from the player after a delivery had been bowled, before offering whatever he had in his hands. On some occasions, it required him to traverse to the other side of the boundary to procure something, and there he would be, sprinting without a care, running half-laps like it was no big deal.

When the players halted for a much-needed (official) drinks break, Raghu remained positioned at the ropes, watching his boys guzzle on some refreshments. In his head, he was probably thinking of the next sprint he had to make.

Mind you, it wasn’t the only thing he was doing that evening. At the Chepauk Stadium, there were no ball-kids for the game, which meant that both teams had to internally take care of ball collection. Swiftness is key with over rates and subsequent penalties – in a World Cup, all the more. And so, he doubled as a ball-boy too, sending back whatever came his way.

A particular memory sticks: in the 41st over, a straight boundary had been hit, right in front of the sightscreen. Mindful that over rates are particularly decisive towards the end of an innings, Raghu bolted at top speed from deep cover, collected the ball and sent it back, saving his teammates some effort and some time. Even after a hard day’s work, he just wasn’t giving up.

None of this is new: for years, Raghu has been a diligent, lively background force for the Indian team. Trained to send down deliveries upwards of 150kph with a sidearm, he has been vital in helping India’s batters get accustomed to the extra pace, especially on tours to Australia and South Africa, where the ball comes on quicker than back home.

“After playing Raghu in the nets, when you go into a match, you feel there is a lot of time,” Virat Kohli had once said.

Alongside that, he’s done anything and everything to fill in for the team: last year, Harsha Bhogle tweeted how he had been carrying a coarse brush along the ropes when India were playing Bangladesh on a damp Adelaide outfield in the 2022 T20 World Cup, ensuring their spikes weren’t getting clogged by the mud and slipping.

When the Australian innings finally came to a close, and the players disappeared into the dugout, the space on the media box’s left flank was finally vacant. Raghu finally had time to rest. Maybe grab a drink of his own.

Three days from now, he’ll probably be doing the same in Delhi. Game after game, day after day. When the team wins, the victory will be as much Raghu’s, as it will be for the players. As it will be for the rest of the support staff, just as invested in the dream. It showed when it was Raghu who got to lift the 2023 Asia Cup trophy for the presentation photo last month, the team thrusting him in the middle of the frame for much-deserved attention.

The sport is as much about the main characters as it is about the background forces. And that’s what makes the entire package so captivating.