Abhinav unplugged

Despite his impressive performance with the willow in Galle, Abhinav Mukund was dropped, and he didn’t play the remaining Tests. But the opener has no regrets. “The management had told me that I had to make way for a player who had already established himself. I know that I wasn’t dropped because I had a poor game. As a matter of fact, I had a good Test,” he says in this chat.

Abhinav Mukund... “To be honest, cricket is the only thing that wakes me up in the morning. I can’t do a desk job or something else.”   -  K. V. S. Giri

The date is January 31, 2017. It is five years, five months and five days since Abhinav Mukund donned the Test whites for India. At the BCCI headquarters in Mumbai, chaos reigns.

With the Board and the state associations dragging their heels over the Lodha reforms, there is confusion surrounding the selection committee meeting. The BCCI joint secretary, Amitabh Chaudhary, has been barred from attending the meeting. There is drama all around.

Meanwhile Mukund racks up 849 runs in the 2016-17 Ranji season, at 65.30, with four centuries and three half-centuries under his belt. Earlier, playing for India Red, the left-hander raised 77 and 169 in a Duleep Trophy fixture against India Green.

He isn’t knocking on the national selectors’ doors; he is pounding it with a sledgehammer. And they oblige by holding the door ajar. The Tamil Nadu opener features in the 16-member squad that will take on Bangladesh in a one-off Test in Hyderabad from February 9 to 13.

Looking back, Mukund acknowledges, “It is just a very hard team to break into. I understand that, but I will continue doing what I can.

“I don’t want to think about selection. Whenever I thought of getting selected, I never got it. It’s best to think about things I’ve under my control instead of worrying about other players and selection.”

India beats Bangladesh by 208 runs. Mukund doesn’t play.

Next up, Steve Smith and his men tour India for a four-Test series. Unlike last time, Mukund doesn’t have to wait half-a-decade for his next call-up — he breaks into the Indian team straightaway.

However, with K. L. Rahul and Murali Vijay fit and raring to go, Mukund gets only one match to show his prowess, and he falls short. Another opportunity goes abegging, perhaps.

A difficult English summer

Nevertheless, since 2014, things have appeared to look up for the 27-year-old opener. “To be honest, cricket is the only thing that wakes me up in the morning. I can’t do a desk job or something else. So, I wanted to get myself fit and ready, and things have fallen in place ever since,” he says with a palpable sense of relief in his voice.

For a player who has had a stellar start to his domestic career — centuries on debut in the Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup, a 50-plus average after three first-class seasons, third Tamil Nadu batsman to score a triple-century — Mukund’s sojourn with the national team hasn’t quite gone according to expectation.

Destiny smiled on him when the then regular openers — Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir — were injured ahead of the 2011 Caribbean series, paving the way for Mukund’s debut.

A couple of steady knocks in the Test series earned him a place in the squad, as a reserve opener, for the England tour that followed. That was the tipping point, for Mukund and India. After a string of low scores — 49, 12, 0 and 3 — he was benched.

“I think my love for the game was lost — a bit. I was quite shattered at the way I was dropped and didn’t think I could get back into the Indian team,” Mukund says.

It was just a bad, English summer for the Indian team. The host, led by Andrew Strauss, whipped up a 4-0 whitewash.

The humiliation didn’t end there. India was then handed a 4-0 thrashing in the Test series Down Under.

“It was quite a challenging phase for Indian cricket. A few senior players retired post that (England and Australia whitewash).”

Getting over the disappointment

That said, as a young batsman making a foray into international cricket, Mukund had plenty on his plate already. “See, I wasn’t aware of a lot of the things that were going on within the team management. I was just a young cricketer trying to focus on playing the game because England is a really difficult place to play cricket, especially then, when they were fielding their full-strength team,” he says.

In retrospect, however, he admits, “I was a little under-prepared; wasn’t expecting the call-up, but it is not something I want to complain or dwell on. After that, I have had my opportunities and have tried to make them count.”

Getting over the disappointment was tough, and the thought of quitting did cross his mind. “Yeah, many times! I would be lying if I didn’t say so,” he says.

“A lot of times, I thought of quitting the game. Ever since I started playing, I wanted to excel. I think anything I take up, I want to excel. That’s something I’ve grown up doing. And when I wasn’t excelling at what I was doing, I contemplated moving on.

“But, I have a close set of friends who stood by me. My family supported me throughout this phase.”

It was around this time that a club cricket stint for Loughborough Town CC in Leicestershire helped revive his love for the game. “After that, I realised that I wanted to play the game because I enjoyed playing it. I love battling out in the middle. The runs are all a result of that.”

Sailing through in the island nation

In the first Test against Sri Lanka, during his knock of 81, Mukund put on 133 runs for the third wicket with skipper Virat Kohli to put India in a commanding position.

Content with his performance, Mukund says, “I wanted to prove a point to myself more than anyone else that I can score runs at the international level.

Abhinav Mukund watches his shot during his knock of 81 in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle. “I wanted to prove a point to myself more than anyone else that I can score runs at the international level,” says the batsman of his knock.   -  AP

 

“And I was glad I got a start, but disappointed I couldn’t convert it into a hundred. I negotiated the difficult parts and got out in the dying moments of the day’s play. However, spending time in the middle was a good experience for me.” It’s a new-look India, both in terms of names and results, but Mukund’s graph seems to have taken an affinity to the familiar template — one that he’s thriving on at the moment.

The dichotomy of Mukund’s career, between being in the limelight and in obscurity, is reflected in the kind of person he is away from the 22 yards. He may be quiet and laidback when not playing, but in Indian colours he has the hunger, though the squandered chances haven’t helped.

After an impressive outing with the willow in Galle, he was dropped again, and didn’t play the remaining Tests. This time though, he has no regrets.

“The management had told me that I had to make way for a player who had already established himself. I know that I wasn’t dropped because I had a poor game. As a matter of fact, I had a good Test,” a self-assured Mukund says.

Having played under M. S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli at two different stages of his career, he reckons, “There’s not a big difference in their captaincy, really. Virat is a lot more vocal, he keeps saying what he wants to do and he wants to set an example of his own. I’ve played with Virat much before Dhoni bhai; I was with him since the Under-19 days and his hunger for the game hasn’t changed at all. Dhoni bhai is more subdued. But at the end of the day, both are really good at what they do,” he says.

India is currently No. 1 in the ICC Test rankings, a laurel, “Virat and the entire unit takes pride in.” Throwing light on what goes on behind the closed doors of the dressing room, he says, “Both Virat and (Ravi) Shastri sir are very keen on players expressing themselves. The entire team management wants to set a very high standard of on-field performance and I think the current Indian team is one of the fittest.

“They expect people to be strict and proactive. These are the conversations people keep having with you once you’re in the set-up.” India is all set for a gruelling overseas stint. And Mukund is keeping his hopes alive in the belief that he will get another crack at doing what he does best — play cricket. 

Six years into the highest echelons of the game, he thinks, “I am much more composed now; I understand my game and the situations a lot better. It is something that a cricketer develops over a period of time and I am enjoying the way I’m batting at the moment, so I want to continue doing that.”

Domestic season

The Ranji Trophy is around the corner, but Mukund, who was away on national duty and played a Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) match the very day he got back from Sri Lanka, says, “There hasn’t been any communication with the Tamil Nadu team-mates ... I haven’t spoken to Hrishikesh yet. The pre-season camps start only mid-September, so I don’t want to talk about that at the moment.”

That said, he is glad that the BCCI agreed to revert to its tried-and-tested ‘home and away’ format for the upcoming season. “Yes, of course, I am a big supporter of ‘home and away’. I wasn’t too happy with the neutral venues, and I made it very clear last year.”

About the pink ball and its future, Mukund believes, “It’s a different experience, and if they make some changes to the ball — it gets discoloured on our rough wickets very quickly — it will obviously attract more crowds.”

Most of the players have given the pink ball a thumbs-up, but there has been the odd voice of dissent with regard to its visibility. But for Mukund, “sighting the ball wasn’t an issue, though a couple of other players did have trouble seeing the ball, especially during the twilight period. And if it is going to draw hordes of fans to Test cricket, then why not.”

A reflection

Mukund was a shy kid growing up, “not very mischievous” as he puts it. Mukund says his father, T. S. Mukund, wanted him to be very disciplined — “that’s the only thing he wanted.”

In his childhood, Mukund had tried his hand at basketball, football and table tennis, but cricket was what he was “quite good at”. So he stuck with it.

The cricket junkie in Mukund perhaps got a shot in the arm when his father took him to the Chepauk stadium in Chennai to watch the 1997 Independence Cup match between India and Pakistan.

“That was the first live match I watched. If you remember, Saeed Anwar got 194 in that game,” he reminisces.

“I am a very private person, you know; not too socially out there, someone who likes to spend time with friends and family.

“And I like doing routine things like watching movies and hanging out at coffee shops,” he signs off.

ABHINAV & FITNESS

Because we’re playing so much cricket these days, we don’t have an off-season as such. But since I don’t play in the IPL, I train during the months of April and May.

It consists of running and gym schedules. There are specific drills that you focus on before a Test and ODI match. For the shorter format, you need to attend to the fast-twitch fibres a lot more.

And in Tests, you need to stand on the field for hours on end, and you’ve to keep bending if you’re batting or fielding at short-leg/slips, obviously you do specific exercises towards that end. 

I think gym schedules are mandatory for every single player in the Indian team, and everyone is taking the sessions very seriously. We also have ‘fitness parameters’ coming in... people are talking about it.

I’m not quite aware of such things but all other teams are adopting it so the Indian team will have one quite soon.