In June 2018, Milind Kumar's world was thrown completely off-kilter due to a personal tragedy. His mother had passed away. In his own words, "I was very disturbed. I didn't know what is happening, what isn't."
Then came September and Milind, still a Delhi player, was looking forward to playing the Vijay Hazare Trophy. But he was put on the standby list and not included in the original squad picked. The selectors told him the squad was picked for the first three matches only, and he would get a look-in later on. Three matches came and went, and Milind was not informed about anything. "The selectors... I wasn't in their plans at all. They kept me in the dark."
Reeling on the personal and professional front, Milind didn't really know where he could turn to. And then the Sikkim Cricket Association came calling. "I got to know that Sikkim needed a professional, so then I spoke to them. They were also interested, and that's how it happened," Milind tells ESPNcricinfo. "There were about two weeks between my first talking to them and signing with them. But it's not like I had much choice, in the sense Delhi weren't playing me. I didn't want to waste my year, so I signed up."
That move led to 261 in his first match for Sikkim, against Manipur, and the runs just haven't dried up for Milind since then. He became the first cricketer in this 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season to aggregate 1000 runs, getting there in nine innings. Only Rusi Modi, way back in 1944-45, got there in fewer innings (seven). Milind was on 878 runs going into Sikkim's ongoing match against Mizoram. Nobody would have bet against him getting to four figures, and he duly did, hitting 139.
It's been a surreal journey almost. He had walked in at 12 for 3 in that opening match and seen it become 15 for 5. From there, his 261 lifted Sikkim to 372 all out and an innings win. The next game, against Nagaland, he came in at 25 for 3 and saw it become 30 for 4. He made 224 and Sikkim won by nine wickets. Against Uttarakhand, he could have become the first man ever to hit three consecutive first-class double-centuries, but was out for 133 in the first innings. His second-innings 61 felt almost like a failure.
The only failure came against Bihar in the following game, but even that was instructive. He made 13 as Sikkim were bowled out for 81 - no Milind, no score - after Bihar had made 288. They were bowled out in the middle of the second day, in 39.4 overs. No team in that position thinks twice about enforcing the follow-on. But it appears such was Milind's aura that Bihar not only batted again, they did so for 81 overs and only declared after Sikkim had been set a possibly Milind-proof target of 504.
In the next match, Puducherry batted on till they had 647 for 8 declared in their first innings, a number so massive even a Milind double-century wouldn't be enough to overcome it alone. He made 96 and 77 not out, before the current match against Mizoram. There is one more match, against Meghalaya, and possibly one more innings to come in the ongoing game. VVS Laxman's Ranji record of 1,415 runs might have seemed impregnable to anyone else - 398 runs away with so few innings left - but Milind had started the season with 485 runs in just two innings.
What gave Milind the mental strength to go out and have such a season, he said, was Buddhist chants. When he was facing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at the start of the season, he came across a book (the name of which he can't remember) that spoke of the soothing power of meditation. His grandfather had turned Buddhist before Milind was born, and it is the practice he has known since birth. And, in Buddhism, chanting is the traditional way to prepare your mind for meditation.
"It's not much, just a normal Buddhist chant of 'Buddham Sharanam Gacchhami'. Like if you are a Hindu, there is a katha in temples," he says. "It's something I do when I have free time. I don't leave my mind idle during free time. You can get restless otherwise, but after chanting, the mind calms down. That helps a lot."
The inner calm has translated into a gale force of runs. True, it's only in the Plate Group, where teams are filled with rookie players, and the professionals have all got handsome returns. But none of them have matched Milind. And what does he say to those who discount the runs because of the weak opposition? "Nothing!" comes the instant reply. And then a more considered elaboration: "What will I say to them anyway? It makes no difference to me what people are talking about me. My job is to make runs, and I will make runs. I don't want to notice what people say, whether good or bad."
He also points out that no matter what the level, having lost your top order for under 50 creates a challenge that's not to be sneered at. In every innings Sikkim have played bar two, they have lost four wickets before hitting 50. "In that first match, I went to bat at 12 for 3. And in front of me it became 15 for 5. I felt great pressure at that time, thinking, 'Ye kya ho gaya' [what is happening]... I hadn't thought in my dreams also that I could score 260-odd when my team was 15 for 5. That match gave me a lot of self-belief."
Before Milind's entry, alongside Bipul Sharma and Ishwar Chaudhary as professionals, Sikkim were the whipping boys of the whipping-boy group. They had lost every single Vijay Hazare Trophy match against their fellow Plate Group teams convincingly. Now, they're a team to be feared in their group. But it's not as if Milind is simply a journeyman who has lucked out against weaker opponents either. He was good enough as a 21-year-old to be part of Delhi's playing XI against the visiting England team in January 2013, and to hit 78 not out as Delhi chased down 295 in 48.3 overs, with Shikhar Dhawan hitting a century that would catapult him into the Indian team.
He has batted with Virat Kohli in a Challenger Trophy final in September 2013. "In childhood Rahul Dravid was my favourite. But today, the passion and hunger for runs that Virat Kohli has, I really like that. He's a run machine, you never see him flop," he says. "I have played with him in the Challenger Trophy."
Although Milind played six matches with Kohli, he batted with him only in the final where Kohli was run out. That left Delhi on 46 for 4, chasing 275. Unfazed, Milind went on to make 54 before he himself was out.
Now, the only difference now is, if his team are four down for next to nothing, Milind doubles, triples, or even quadruples that score.