'Winning games for India is what I want to do'
The success in the IPL has now earned you an India cap after six years. How exciting is it to be playing again in the national shirt?
I am very excited. It means a lot to me that I'm playing for the country again. It makes me extremely proud that I am able to do what I love doing at the highest level. But I just see this as an opportunity. I cannot sit back and I say I have made it now. It is an opportunity to start all over again.
You built your success in the IPL as an opener. The last time you played for India, you batted in the lower middle order. Would you be more comfortable opening?
Winning the treble with Karnataka gave me a massive understanding of what I need to do in terms of being able to perform my role to the best of my ability. I am very certain about my role as an opening batsman, because I do it day in, day out throughout the season for Karnataka. So it is just a matter of repeating the same process at a different level.
Are you better aware about your role in the Indian side now?
I know that if I stick to what works for me, I will be successful. I need to stay in the present. I need to make sure that I focus on the most important thing: to play on the merit of the ball. If I can do that, the scores will come. I am pretty confident that I can perform the role of an opening batsman to my fullest potential. I believe that I can set up games for India to win. Winning games for India is what I want to do. That is an intense desire.
You did that with Kolkata Knight Riders. You finished as the IPL's best batsman. How important an achievement was that?
It is a wonderful feeling. I am happy that I was able to contribute to my team in a way that was meaningful. And I was able to do it consistently. I want to build on it. I want to move forward with that growth now. At the same time, I recognise places I can improve on, work on, get better at.
It was an uncertain beginning for both Knight Riders and yourself. You started in the middle order and were only the fourth-choice opener?
I spoke with the team management and told them I wanted to open. So I did feel the pressure in the first match I opened. But that kind of nervousness is only a good thing. It makes you go out there and express yourself better. It makes you more alive in the moment. I came out better with that pressure on. I have got more clarity about my cricket and that has contributed to my success.
I believe your personal coach, Pravin Amre, stressed on focusing on the basics?
Sir [Amre] has always taught me that if I had the right [technical] action, the end result would be good. The initial part of our training was a lot about making sure that my initial movements were correct, my set-up was correct, the way I picked up the bat, the way the backlift was, the [way the] downswing was. When all of that is proper, 60-70% of your work is done. The rest is about getting your head into position, holding that position well and playing the ball late into the gaps. It is important to remind myself about these things because when you achieve a momentum there is danger of getting carried away when it is important to stick to the basics.
You are now showing the full face of the bat in your strokes as opposed to earlier, when it used to be closed. How big a difference has that made?
It has made a massive difference. As a cricketer I can experience certain stuff but I cannot explain to you in words what it feels to hit the ball from the middle of the bat with the right technique. Very early in our training, I remember telling Sir immediately after hitting a fluent cover drive that I have hit so many sixes in my life but this shot I just hit I would never forget. I hit it so sweetly. He told me not to worry because I would do it more often. It is just a feel, more like a sensation.
Which is the most improved stroke?
Every shot in the V past the bowler on both sides has improved. I have worked a lot on the on drive. We spent hours on that stroke where earlier I was vulnerable against the lbw. You have to get a lot of things in place for that shot: your head needs to be on top of the ball, your legs in the right position, your body aligned correctly to get the power into the stroke. But the cover drive is the one that stands out for me. I have become more of a touch player than someone who plays with a lot of power. That has been my biggest improvement. But it will only stay with me if I continue to work on it.
One of the most visible changes is that you have consciously cut down on hitting sixes. Was that planned?
It was not a conscious effort. The aim was to play to the merit of the ball and importantly bat responsibly. As much as opening is a challenge it is also about focusing on holding an end up. That only allows my team to be in a better position. In some games I was trying to chip the ball over the infield but it went straight to the fielder. I felt that in those instances, if I had gone all through, it could have only proved beneficial. One of the goals I set for myself at the outset was that I wanted to bat through 20 overs. But I started the tournament by coming to play in the middle overs before I started to open. Like I said earlier, there is a lot of scope to improve.
You would appreciate the innings Suresh Raina played in the second qualifier for Chennai Super Kings - playing good cricketing shots. Was that the best innings of this IPL for you?
As far as skills are concerned, definitely. Raina held beautiful positions, played late, stood deep in the crease, made use of the bounce, played very clever cricket. I enjoyed watching him play without fear. Also, when you are chasing a massive score it gives a batsman the freedom to be brave. It was inspiring and I picked up some good things from Raina's innings.
You batted with an injured toe against Mumbai Indians in a crucial match that Knight Riders won. You picked it as your best innings this IPL. Why?
Two days before the Mumbai match in Cuttack, I was hit flush on my left big toe by a yorker-length delivery from Pat Cummins. He was bowling with a new ball that swung in. I batted through, but when I removed my shoe I had a broken nail and it was bleeding profusely. Andrew Leipus [Knight Riders' physiotherapist] gave me some painkillers.
I was positive about playing the match considering we had to win it. I was wearing slippers the next day. But on match day, when I reached the ground, I realised I could not even get a sock on easily, let alone a shoe. I am a UK size 10, so Andrew suggested I try a bigger size. I tried one size bigger but that too was not going in. Then I tried Morne Morkel's size 12. But I could barely walk in them even though I hit some throwdowns. I could not put too much pressure on my leading leg as I was unable to get up on my toes.
I had doubts whether I would be able to play the match. I was feeling uncomfortable in Morne's shoes. Andrew suggested I wear something with an open toe to take the pressure off. Jacques Kallis had his bowling boots, which were size 11. Andrew built a nice, thick protection cap over the cut part of the shoe to provide a good cushion.
Fortunately we bowled first and it gave me little more time to adjust to the shoe. I finished with the Man-of-the-Match award with an 80. I thanked Kallis and played in them till the qualifier.
WV Raman, an experienced domestic coach and part of the coaching bench at Knight Riders, says in all these years he has seen you, you have never been more calm about your batting.
I am in a place in my life where I understand how I can handle everything. If I can stay in the present I have got most things taken care of. I have grown as a human being in the last couple of years as well. I am surrounded by positive people, who add value to my life, which helps me perform better.
Do you realistically believe you will be part of the Indian squad for next year's World Cup?
I believe in my ability and that I will play in the World Cup and contribute to our country's success in a meaningful manner. That is the hope. I am very, very consciously living in the present. I am confident but for the moment I am focusing to perform and succeed in Bangladesh to begin with and carry forward the confidence into subsequent tournaments.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo