Mind over matter for Nayar
Mumbai's Abhishek Nayar is not a cricketing stylist. His wide-footed, crouching stance is up there with Shivnarine Chanderpaul's in the awkwardness stakes, and his bowling isn't about tearaway pace and toe-crushing yorkers but more about accuracy. Still, as he has a realistic chance of reaching 1000 runs this season, to go with several match-turning spells with the ball and an ability to deliver in the crunch, Nayar is a strong contender for Player of the Season.
More than "god-gifted talent" - the term MS Dhoni recently used to describe Nayar's close friend Rohit Sharma - what has brought Nayar success is his mental strength, his competitiveness and a burning desire to improve. "I've always been a very bad loser," Nayar chuckled. "That has sort of helped me - I hate to lose, that competitive spirit helps me."
Pravin Amre, who was the Mumbai coach when Nayar's career began to flourish, vouched for his mental toughness: "He may not look that great while playing but always he had that attitude, he had that X-factor, when the chips are down he never gives up."
That refusal to give up was tested most sorely in 2010 after a wrist injury put his career at a crossroads. A first surgery didn't solve the problem; he needed another operation in 2011 to make the pain subside. To make things worse, he also suffered an ankle injury. "He was down, he was injured, he couldn't walk," Amre, who still works closely with Nayar, said. "His footwork was affected, his wrist work too."
Before the injury, Nayar had built a reputation as a big-hitter who was dangerous but lacked consistency. After the injury, he set about re-tooling his game. "I had to make sure I worked on my grip, made sure I used my bottom hand to good effect. I worked on that in the nets and with all the practice it happened to click for me," Nayar said. "I also made a conscious effort to be more patient - I'm always itching to play my shots, I had to play more responsibly as my position is quite crucial."
Amre elaborated on the changes he discussed with Nayar. "After that injury his grip had to be corrected, but I was very careful not to disturb his natural style, since the mould is already made at the age of 27-28," he said. "It worked because I know his history. Previously he was dependent on his power, previously he would just go there and attack, but now sixes are less, runs are more. I give credit to him, two years ago, he had that willpower."
While Amre helped iron out some technical deficiencies, Nayar also turned to an unusual source for support last year. He hired Anand Chulani, a peak performance coach, to help with the mental aspect of the game, a move which is virtually unheard of among Ranji cricketers. What Chulani does - "my work is about aligning the psychology and physiology, activating a person's highest mental, physical and emotional resources" - may sound like psychobabble to some, but Nayar said it transformed him.
"I met him during my time with Kings XI Punjab last year," Nayar said. "He gave the team a small lecture, a one-hour lecture, then I thought he could help me. I wasn't part of the squad at that point, was low on confidence. I thought maybe I could meet him and see how it goes, I thoroughly enjoyed it, I was in a very good mindset from then on. He has been brilliant at his work."
Nayar cites an example of how Chulani has helped. "During the Kanga league, before the start of the season, I wasn't enjoying myself though I was getting runs. When I spoke to him, he gave me a lot of reasons why I was not enjoying. The most important thing was my mindset, more than technique I rely on my mind. I played a Times shield game after that and my thinking had completely changed - then it was not about doing well, it was about enjoying the game because I love playing the game."
Chulani calls Nayar's "brand" the tiger, and explained what his work involved. "I think Nayar's real gift and what makes him a winner is his mind, he is mentally extremely tough," Chulani said. "He's someone who performs under pressure. I think it was about reconnecting to his brand … a fiery, passionate, driven guy. To make him not worry about selection, it was uncaging the tiger, I gave him the keys to unlock the cage."
While Nayar may work hard at not thinking about national selection, it is a question that will be asked at each of his interviews, as is the case with most standout Ranji performers. Nayar had a brief spell with the Indian team in 2009 - he scored 0* in his only chance to bat in three ODIs, and bowled only in one innings - and his subsequent fitness issues pushed him firmly off the selectors' radar. "I'm always hoping," Nayar said. "But the main thing is I'm enjoying my cricket. God willing if things fall in place, I will make a comeback."
Amre is more forthright: "One should get a fair run, it is not an easy game. The two years have made him tougher. If you become highest run-getter, highest wicket-taker your name should be there. I think one more good season and he should be there."
With India always short on allrounders, Nayar could well be back in the national reckoning soon, and then attention should shift from his unorthodox technique to his efforts to improve the technical and mental side of his game.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo