December 22, 2013

Manpreet Juneja hungry for success

The talented Gujarat batsman has not had an easy run to the top in domestic cricket, but he is prepared for the challenges he knows lie ahead

In September this year, Gujarat's Manpreet Juneja was selected for India A's unofficial Tests against the visiting New Zealand and West Indies sides on the back of a solid first-class record. The 23-year-old right-hand batsman averaged 74.28 after his first two seasons of first-class cricket and he lived up to the billing in the unofficial Tests, top-scoring in each innings, ahead of names such as Unmukt Chand and Vijay Zol. He narrowly missed a double-century against the New Zealand attack, led by Doug Bracewell, in Visakhapatnam during a free-flowing innings, and he was the only batsman to put up a fight against West Indies with gritty half-centuries in both innings.

"I rate a big century on a good pitch and a 70-odd on a tough one equally," Juneja says about the experience. "Scoring runs against international teams always gives you confidence. The runs against New Zealand [193] came on a good pitch, but the two fifties that I got against West Indies were equally satisfying."

It hasn't been all rosy since. In six Ranji Trophy matches this season, Juneja has seen five of his team-mates share seven centuries in a young Gujarat team's quest for a place in the knockouts. As one of the main batsmen, though, he has scored just 90, with a top score of 50, and that once-impressive average of 70-plus has plunged to 58.46. In Gujarat's last outing, against Haryana, he was pushed down the order from the No. 3 position that he had earned after much hard work. Now Juneja finds himself in another tussle with himself to make good on his obvious batting talent.

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In Gujarat, a lot of players give up cricket early to join family dhandho (business), but Juneja's father, who runs a tyre dealership, was supportive of his son's career motives; possibly, Juneja says, because he loves cricket too. Juneja needed that support early in his career after failing to make it to the India Under-19 and Gujarat state teams.

In recent years the high-profile nature of U-19 tournaments has given early visibility to exceptional talents in India. So it's not a surprise that missing out on an India Under-19 berth after being part of the probables came as a setback for Juneja.

Making it to the top level of cricket is always very tough, Juneja says, and that is why he stopped worrying about things that were not in his control. "Once I was not selected, my goals became very small," he says. "I stopped thinking too far ahead. So when I moved through U-19s to U-22 to Ranji, I didn't realise when it happened, because I wasn't thinking too much about it. I never took my mind off cricket. When I eventually came to play Ranji, I was better prepared, I had more shots."

He went back and worked with Mukund Parmar, the former Gujarat coach, who took him on as one of his personal assignments during his five months of Level 3 coaching.

"I had seen Juneja from his U-17 days and he was always a promising player," Parmar says. "But for some time, he was struggling to score runs and we tried to find out the problem areas and solve them. He had issues against certain deliveries back then, but now he is comfortable with his technique."

Juneja featured in two List A matches for Gujarat in 2009 before he went back to the drawing board. He made a return to the state team two years later, first in limited-overs matches and then in the Ranji Trophy, and became a regular member as soon as he scored an unbeaten 201 against Tamil Nadu from No. 6 on his debut. That innings earned him an IPL contract with Delhi Daredevils, an opportunity that came as a boon, he says. There was a lot to learn from Virender Sehwag, Mahela Jayawardene, Kevin Pietersen, and in 2013, Viv Richards.

"I wasn't playing matches for Mahela or KP to notice my game. I just had interactions with them. With Mahela, it was about strategy and how to settle down in an innings. KP told me about how to score, how to force your way up the order"

"I wasn't in an awe of them, but I wanted to know what they do differently," he says. "They told me that a lot of players have talent at the U-19 level, but only a few who have the mental strength make it to the next stage, and I understand that. I wasn't playing matches for Mahela or KP to notice my game. I just had interactions with them. With Mahela, it was about strategy and how to settle down in an innings. KP told me about how to score, how to force your way up the order."

That lesson from Pietersen seemed to have done the trick, as Juneja cemented his place at No. 3 after 796 runs in the previous Ranji season. The role brought more responsibility and the freedom to express himself, something Jai Prakash Patel, Juneja's childhood coach who still works with him, says Juneja is conscious of, as he doesn't want to be labelled only as a four-day cricketer.

Juneja may have an eye on his strike rate, but Parmar says that for a batsman of his calibre, he shouldn't worry about scoring too quickly too early. "I always tell him to settle in his innings before opening up," Parmar says. "Last year he scored a century in a crucial T20 game against Kerala, and in that innings too, he took his time. Once he gets going, he can handle any bowling. So he should stop thinking about the strike rate initially."

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Juneja is part of that new breed of Indian cricketers who, one imagines, would be at ease in an interview for a job in a management consultancy. Articulate but not overweening. Relaxed but focused on each question. Confident but honest in his assessment of his strengths and vulnerabilities. Qualities that employers seek in addition to a strong resumé.

Juneja's CV includes a first-class Bachelors in Commerce, but it is his record as a batsman that has propped his name up in national-level cricket. On the crease, like most good players, he is very still before he unleashes whiplash shots, the quick hands as noticeable when he punches through covers as when he flicks over midwicket.

The penchant for quality - as visible in his tall scores as in his pleasing strokeplay - was ingrained while he was growing up, Juneja says. He started playing cricket when he was five and attended coaching camps for the next two years. But realising his interest was veering towards tennis, he gave that a serious shot for a few years. It was selection in his school team at the age of 12 that brought the focus back to cricket.

Sport had to be managed along with education. "My mother was always worried about studies. She is from Tamil Nadu, where they give a lot of importance to their academics," Juneja says. "Till I got selected in the U-19 probables, I was only allowed to play if I got certain percentages in studies. That was very beneficial, because that made me always give a lot of importance to studies. And that became a habit throughout. When I was in college, there wasn't much pressure, but for me, mediocrity was not on. I did college quite well. I wanted to do well."

Vijay Patel, the current Gujarat coach, says, "We don't want to put pressure on his game. We let him play as he wants to, because we know he is a big-game player. But we want to groom him as a future leader. Time away from the game in the past has made him tough."

After initial setbacks, Juneja has done well to cut it at the top in domestic cricket, which is like getting a good job right out of university. But the real struggle for him, in life and in cricket, is only beginning now.

Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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