Manprit Juneja drives the ball with such eye-catching grace and fluency that it's hard to believe tennis was his first sport. As a 13-year old he was serving aces and competing in junior state-level tournaments, but he made the switch, strangely, because he felt he was better than those in his school's cricket team. Today, he's part of a successful Gujarat team that is a step away from their first Ranji Trophy title.
Juneja is not among the top ten run-getters list this season, but he derives satisfaction from being Gujarat's "tough-runs man", as Parthiv Patel calls him. He started the season with a double-century to help Gujarat pocket first-innings points by chasing down Baroda's 544 in Jaipur. He struck 66 in a match-winning effort in Lahli, and 79 out of a team total of 302 against a quality Madhya Pradesh attack in Nagothane, before turning the semi-final with a second-innings 81 to help Gujarat roar back from conceding the first-innings lead to Jharkhand.
These knocks have underlined his importance and proved there's more to Gujarat's batting than just Parthiv and Priyank Panchal, the season's highest run-getter. "Stats are not important. What's important is the kind of innings I played. Did I help the team win? Even if I get a 60-80 and my team has won the match, I'm happy with it," Juneja tells ESPNcricinfo. "Obviously, stats are looked at, but at the end of the day, it's important to be a match-winner. If you score 700 runs and win two or three matches for the team instead of scoring 1000 without your team qualifying, that's a better achievement for me."
The confidence and authority Juneja exudes reflects the transformation he has undergone, both in his attitude and mindset, since falling away after a stellar start to his domestic career.
Making his debut in 2011-12, Juneja became only the fourth Indian after Amol Muzumdar, Anshuman Pandey and Gundappa Viswanath to make a double century on first-class debut. In 2012-13, his first full first-class season, he scored 796 runs at 66.33, but he averaged less than 40 in his next two seasons, scoring only one century in 15 matches.
He turned to advice from Geet Sethi, the former world billiards champion. "He guided me through the slump and taught me what it is to take setbacks and come back from it," Juneja says. "He was world champion twice and then had a slump for two-three years and then again went on to become world champion. The experiences he shared with me taught me the best way to deal with things. How I could focus on different aspects of my game is what he taught me. That helped me a lot.
"My meetings with Geet uncle revolve around preparation, how I'm feeling, what my fitness levels are. He explained that you have to compete with yourself at the end of the day. You tend to start seeing people around you do well and pressurise yourself to do much better. That's not how it should be. You should compete with yourself, and that's what I'm trying to do. That's the discussion we have had."
Juneja seemed to have come of age after his first two seasons, scoring an unbeaten 51 for India Under-23s in the final of the Asian Cricket Council Emerging Players Cup against Pakistan Under-23s, earning an IPL contract with Delhi Daredevils and getting called up to the India A team. But his career trajectory went steeply downward thereafter.
"I probably pushed myself way too hard. I wasn't enjoying the game as much as I should have because of that," he says. "I had [issues with my eyesight]; I had a shoulder injury and had to go through surgery. Somewhere mid-season in 2015-16, I realised I was thinking way too much. I was very close to getting to the next level, and then had the slump. I probably missed my chance.
"Since age-group cricket, we keep seeing success. We don't learn as much, and that's what first-class [cricket] teaches you. You play with the same set of teams and bowlers, who study you and vice-versa. They come up with better plans, so that is when you have to raise your game. The slump made me understand my game more."
At 26, Juneja is mature enough to understand the need to prove himself, but isn't punishing himself in the quest to make the next step up. "I follow [Virender] Sehwag's mantra," he says. "Cricket is a complicated game, but the process has to be simple. About batting, you just look at the ball and play the ball. If you start thinking what the opponent will bowl, you make things complicated. Viru bhai explained that he kept things simple and that he had a lot of belief. He never talked about technique; it was all about mind and belief, and playing to your strengths. People have said this for years; it's on you how you take it. It's about knowing your game."
What about Gujarat? The transformation from a middling team to title contenders - how did that happen?
"I think it's a change in mindset and belief," Juneja says. "This time, the aim was to win the Ranji Trophy and not just qualify [for the knockouts]. Belief was supported by our performances in the shorter format. I think luck played a part as well. Couple of years, we've missed out on [qualifying for the knockouts because of] quotient or net-run-rate. We had the belief that we had to play the final. If we could do it in the shorter format, why not in the longer format? The belief and the urge got us through."