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January 28, 2010
Abhimanyu Mithun started to take his cricket seriously just three years ago, having only played with a tennis ball till then. By the end of 2007, he was harrying batsmen on the Under-19 circuit with his pace, scooping up 37 wickets in the Cooch Behar tournament, only one short of topping the charts. He was hoping that performance would pitchfork him into Virat Kohli's side that won the U-19 World Cup in Malaysia in early 2008. He didn't make the cut then, though, but two years on, Mithun has leapfrogged everyone on that victorious team to make the national Test squad.
He's done that largely on the strength of his favourite tactic: subjecting batsmen to an intense scrutiny of their technique against the short ball. He also likes slipping in yorkers but is generally a hit-the-deck kind of the bowler, whose usual delivery is the incutter to the right-hander.
He hit the headlines early last year when the Royal Challengers Bangalore coach Ray Jennings talked him up as an express bowler, but a quiet IPL followed. The buzz was back once the Ranji Trophy started in November; he ripped through perennial title contenders Uttar Pradesh twice on first-class debut, which included a hat-trick.
In two months, Mithun made the leap from near-anonymity to national selection. In that time, he became the highest wicket-taker in the Ranji season, snaring 47 and topping off the season with dazzling performances against UP in the semi-finals and Mumbai in the finals.
None of this would have been possible had his fledgling career as a discus thrower blossomed. He made it to the state-level as a teenager but couldn't progress beyond that stage. Cricket was only a hobby till one of his friends suggested he join a cricket camp, where Mithun enjoyed the experience of bowling with the leather ball, setting in motion one of most dizzying climbs to the highest level.
The son of a fitness instructor, he used to train regularly in his father's gym in his teens which has given him the sinewy build and strength so useful for a fast bowler.
Another of his strong points is the ability to send down the odd cracking delivery which surprises the batsmen even when he is not at his best. For example, in the Ranji final on a bowler-friendly track in Mysore, he was guilty of wasting the new ball by not making the Mumbai batsmen play enough, and was taken off after a four-over burst. Omkar Khanvilkar and Abhishek Nayar weren't troubled much early in Mithun's second spell either, but he snapped their resistance by bowling both with full, quick deliveries.
Even after a barnstorming season, eyebrows are bound to be raised when someone reaches the Indian team barely ten weeks after his first-class debut. Karnataka coach Sanath Kumar is not one of those surprised by the call-up. "From day one we knew he had the potential," he told Cricinfo. "He has the pace, bowling around 140kmh, and he has performed in every game, whether it is junior cricket or first-class cricket."
Mithun has been more of a shock bowler for Karnataka this season, rather than someone who nips batsmen out by pegging away in the channel outside off stump. "He has to start thinking about how he has to plan a batsman out," Kumar said. "That will come with experience, and being with the likes of Zaheer Khan will teach him a lot."
Over the past decade, plenty of Indian quick bowlers have made their international debut in a cacophony of hype, only to drop their pace and turn in lacklustre performances after a couple of years. The relentless grind of the Indian team has affected the likes of Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel, and Mithun needs to be wary of treading that route. "It is important to be focused, it is important to keep working on the fitness aspect of the game," Venkatesh Prasad, the Karnataka seamer who was India's fast bowling coach till recently, said. "There's lot of distractions which come along your way when you are playing for the country but he should just keep doing what he's been doing to be successful."
Kumar also has similar advice for Mithun. "Not only me, but Rahul [Dravid] also has said the same thing to him, 'whatever you are it is because of cricket, cricket is the ultimate, focus on the game, all other things will come, but start focusing on other things and everything is over', and he knows it well."
Mithun has taken the elevator to the top, but with Sreesanth likely to be fit for the second Test, the Karnataka bowler's first stint with the national squad could be a short one. What should Mithun be looking to take away from this spell? "This should be a benchmark for him, that he's capable of getting into the team, capable of playing for the country," Prasad said. "He should take it as a motivational factor."
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