Injury no bar for Krunal Pandya, again
October, 2016. Krunal Pandya has realised a dream - that of becoming a first-class cricketer. He has been a solid all-round package in limited-overs cricket for a while, but has had to deal with what they call "image-traps" in showbiz. These include being known solely as the "other Pandya", with younger brother Hardik already having made it to the Indian side, and being stereotyped as a short-format cricketer.
Now though, he has got his chance in the longest format, debuting for Baroda in the Ranji Trophy. Batting at No. 3, he has scored 23, and then he has taken two wickets in 17 overs. Then he tears his quadriceps while fielding, and his first-class season is over.
It must be a sense of déjà vu for Krunal. In IPL 2016, Krunal's performance, which incidentally coincided with a poor run for Hardik, was his first big step towards shifting the arc lights on himself. With 237 runs in nine innings at a strike rate of 191.12, and six wickets at an economy-rate of under eight, he was arguably Mumbai Indians' find of the season. But leading up to that tournament, Krunal had spent an agonising few months recovering from a shoulder surgery after sustaining a labral tear during the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament.
Now, for the second time in as many years, in the months before the IPL, Krunal is on the operation table.
Jitendra Singh, or Jitu bhai, has been the Pandya brothers' coach and mentor for many years. In all this time, he hardly ever visited their house. By his own admission, Jitendra, who is assistant coach of the Baroda Under-19 team, is not the kind that socialises with his wards' families. But, exceptions were made; Krunal, after all, had just undergone a surgery to mend his quadriceps and his mobility was restricted for a month.
"Even during the time he had his shoulder surgery, we would meet downstairs, outside his apartment," Jitendra told ESPNcricinfo. "But this time his leg was fully plastered. There was no way he could climb down the stairs, so I would go up to his place. In a lighter vein, Krunal would tell me: 'Jitu bhai, do you know what the most difficult part is? It's sitting on the toilet seat. It's very difficult to even bend my leg.'"
Krunal, according to Jitendra, was despondent during this period. He had to miss the remainder of the Ranji Trophy season at a time when his career was on the upswing. "He was in the scheme of things for national selection in the shorter formats," Jitendra said. "And he had started well in the Ranji Trophy, so it was frustrating for him to have his second major surgery within such a short span of time."
Jitendra's primary agenda was to ensure Krunal was not lonely or depressed. Even if he wasn't around, he said, he would ensure Krunal's friends were around to keep him company.
"The idea was to try and keep the atmosphere light," he said. "It might have involved a little bit of parenting or motivational talk or even becoming the joker. I would tell him that whatever he had missed, he would gain more once he recovers."
About a month after his surgery, Krunal began his rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore under the supervision of trainer Rajinikanth, who had overseen Tamil Nadu allrounder Vijay Shankar's recovery following a knee surgery last year. The first month involved only fitness and strengthening work, but by mid-December, he had started batting and bowling again. Krunal would send Jitendra videos of his net sessions on Whatsapp, and he would get feedback on what needed tuning up in return.
"The idea was to make sure he gets into a zone, so that whenever he started playing the game at full tilt, he was mentally ready to go," Jitendra said. "He would visualise what he was bowling in a match or doing a specific thing in batting. Whenever I saw the videos, I could see he was batting well. On a scale of 10, he was around six or seven.
"It's only natural that on occasions he wanted to rush his recovery, but I would give him the examples of footballers who undergo three or four surgeries and how they make a comeback. I told him the more patient he was, the better his rehab would go."
Soon, Krunal was back in Vadodara and, along with Jitendra, shaking off the rust in centre-pitch training. He then went on to play in local tournaments that doubled up as trial matches for the Vijay Hazare Trophy - the domestic 50-overs tournament - and did well. Krunal made quite an entrance on his return to competitive cricket: with 366 runs in eight matches at an average of 45.75, including three fifties, he topped the batting charts for Baroda in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Baroda's run to the semi-finals also owed much to his bowling; he finished with 11 wickets at less than five runs per over. Unsurprisingly, such performances earned him a place in the Deodhar Trophy - a 50-overs tournament featuring the best one-day talent in the country.
Then the IPL began. In Mumbai's first game of the season, he was preferred to Harbhajan Singh as the sole spinner in the XI. While his batting has come along well - 134 runs in six innings at a strike-rate of 138.14 - it's his left-arm spin that has made him a dangerous proposition. With eight wickets so far, he is currently Mumbai's third-highest wicket-taker this season, and he has got those with an economy rate of 6.39.
Jitendra said Krunal spent a lot of time working on his trajectory and variations of pace. Another area where he has improved, according to Jitendra, is in his bowling to left-hand batsmen.
All of this was on display in his Man-of- the-Match winning show on Saturday night, when he claimed 3 for 14 against Gujarat Lions. Two off those three wickets - Ravindra Jadeja and Irfan Pathan - featured left-hand batsmen.
"Last year, if you assess his performances, he hadn't bowled as well to left-hand batsmen as he is doing now. That's the quality of a good athlete - to learn quickly from mistakes," Jitendra said. "He is getting a nice arc as well. We did a lot of target bowling and single-stump practice. Since he was playing limited-overs cricket, we knew that the more he does target bowling, the faster he would get into his rhythm. Then we spoke about using the crease and working out the angles and reading different batsmen. After Vijay Hazare, we did a few more rectifications, like how not to give the batsmen any room for elevation."
Jitendra felt the biggest upside of Krunal's battle with injuries was how he has emerged as a more mature, mentally stronger individual. His approach in Mumbai's nervy chase against Lions was a case in point. His 20-ball 29 kept Mumbai in the match even as they collapsed to eventually tie the game.
"It was his calmness and maturity that made sure Mumbai didn't lose the game. He took it right till the end," Jitendra said. "He had called a few hours before the game and the discussion was around how the Rajkot wicket was one he was familiar with. He had missed the previous game [with an illness], but was determined to do well. As he plays more games, he will get better and better."
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun