Pragyan Ojha has stood at nearly six feet for a number of years, but appears taller during the Bengal-Mumbai game at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Whether he is bowling, fielding or simply returning to the top of his run-up, Ojha looks a few inches taller than usual. When you meet him after the game - Ojha (3-28) has engineered a 96-run thrashing of Mumbai along with Abhimanyu Easwaran (127) - you realise it's no string theory. Ojha is a lot slimmer than he used to be, and hence appears taller.
Unless you have been present at Bengal's games this season, chances are you have seen little of him, with the exception of two East Zone matches in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament, that were broadcast live. In the three-and-a-half years since his most recent international game, Ojha's television appearances have largely been confined to the IPL. But, even those became sporadic since he was banned from bowling in December 2014.
But, over the last seven or eight months, Ojha, 30, has quietly gone about putting his body through the wringer. According to Ojha, he hasn't lost weight, but instead slashed the fat-percentage. And, while his training methods have largely remained unchanged, he now abides by a stricter diet regimen. Ojha has cut back on sugar and carbohydrates, and tries to eat the "right kind of food at the right time."
His reasoning is simple: if he has to make a comeback to the national side, he has to work doubly hard.
"The first thing [you see] when you look at the Indian team is everybody there is pushing hard," he says. "So, to do anything right on the field, I have to be fit. It's as simple as that. As we know, we don't get younger. So, the fitness level has to be up."
A leaner, fitter Ojha wasn't automatically a more successful version. With 10 wickets from six matches at an average of nearly 40, Ojha had a below-par Ranji Trophy season. He has, however, done better in the shorter formats, finishing with seven wickets across four matches in the inter-state T20 tournament and the Syed Mushtaq Ali inter-zonal competition. In the 50-overs Vijay Hazare Trophy, Ojha was also Bengal's second-highest wicket-taker in the league phase with nine wickets from six games at an average of 23.55 and an economy rate of 4.51.
But, IPL franchises continued to ignore him at the auction. Since Ojha's last Test match ended on November 16, 2013, Ravindra Jadeja has emerged as one of India's most influential match-winners. During the period, Jadeja has picked up 102 of his 129 Test wickets from 23 games. On the other hand, Ojha has had to change his action and clock enough overs to ensure he got a hang of it. Moreover, the reality check that he was no longer in the thick of things was harsh. However, hope has followed hurt.
"Yeah, initially it used to hurt me, but now that has become the biggest motivation for me," he says. "Obviously when you have played at that level and won games for the country, you know you can do it again, and that is the motivation I have and I am trying to work on that.
"I didn't get picked for the IPL this season, but the fact was that all the teams were packed. So, there is no point thinking about things that are not in your control. I came here and spoke to [Bengal coach] Sairaj Bahutule. He said: 'Give your best in Vijay Hazare. [If the] team does well, you do well, and things will change.' That's my biggest motivation. I believe if I keep taking wickets then at some point of time, there might be a chance and I am just looking for that one chance."
Every senior player Ojha has spoken to has had one simple advice to offer: keep fit and bowl a lot. With his remodelled action, Ojha says, he bounds into the crease a lot straighter.
"Previously I was going diagonal. That's the only difference," he says. "And, I have got a slight pause in my action [just before delivery] where I see the batsman. Nowadays the batsmen are so good, they step out and hit [...] especially in the shorter formats. So you have to have that fraction of a second. That's what I am working on."
Ojha is also hopeful of landing a county deal later this year. He says he had to pass up an opportunity to play for Middlesex last year as it clashed with the Duleep Trophy. "If I get a chance I will definitely look to play," he says. "Previously when I played for Surrey, I learnt a lot. You get to bowl a lot as a professional and the whole team depends on you. So, that is a challenge and you grow as a cricketer."
"I don't think like a cricketer when I am at home. I just go home as a normal boy and enjoy my life"
For now, Ojha feels he is better for the experience of being one of the senior players in the Bengal side, which has made the knockouts of the Vijay Hazare.
"If you see, we have got some great cricketers in Bengal. We have got Manoj [Tiwary], Wriddhi [Wriddhiman Saha], [Ashoke] Dinda and [Mohammad] Shami," he says. "When you have so many good players in the team, you look to do well and you try to compete with each other. When everybody is giving their best, you also try to match them and the best performances come out. "Sairaj Bahutule has a lot of inputs, not only as a former spinner but also as a coach. Keeping the team together is the most important thing. When it is a team game, everybody should work towards one goal because you have different minds. He is doing it superbly."
Ojha also says he doesn't agonise over an international comeback. "Right now, I am just thinking about working hard and just going out there and bowling the best I can," he says.
"I am blessed with a good family - my parents and my wife really don't discuss cricket at home, and to a certain extent, I don't think like a cricketer when I am at home. It's the biggest plus point that my family doesn't ask me questions about my cricket or anything. I just go home as a normal boy and just enjoy my life."