When Yo Mahesh wasn't picked in the Tamil Nadu probables ahead of the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy season, he settled for the next best thing. He went up to L Balaji, his former team-mate and current bowling coach of the side, and asked if he could bowl at the team nets. He hadn't done so since 2014, when he was last part of the Tamil Nadu set-up, and when you consider that his most recent first-class appearance came nearly five years ago, it isn't hard to understand his hunger for a piece of big-ticket action, no matter how it came.
Yo Mahesh admits to having a conversation with the selectors about his omission, but politely declines to divulge what came of it. He, however, acknowledges that "Bala bhai" graciously indulged his desire to bowl to "good batsmen." As he serviced the Tamil Nadu batsmen, he watched younger pacers like K Vignesh and L Vignesh play against Andhra and Tripura in Chennai. But, the absence of T Natarajan and Aswin Crist - Tamil Nadu's prime enforcers - due to injuries meant the pace pack was short off the lethality that was instrumental in the team making the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy last season.
Yo Mahesh is no stranger to injuries himself having grappled with torn cartilages in both his knees for the better part of the last five years. The injury, he eventually discovered, was a result of "normal overloading" after having played continuously since his first-class debut in 2006. For the first year and a half, however, he had no clue about the nature of the injury.
He had consulted doctors across the country, but there was no satisfactory answer. It was then he decided to invest his savings - much of which were thanks to his IPL stints with the Delhi Daredevils and Chennai Super Kings - in getting his knees operated by Andy Williams, an orthopaedic surgeon, in London.
Yo Mahesh calls it a "big decision" but a necessary one.
"It was a big decision in terms of the fact that I had to put in savings from my pocket to do the operation," he says. "But, obviously cricket is my bread and butter, so I thought I had to give myself a chance to get back to what I like to do the most." After the surgery, Williams told him it would take a year for him to return to active cricket. Yo Mahesh himself knew it would take a year more for him to acquire match fitness and tune up for a "high-level intensity" tournament like the Ranji Trophy.
He played days' cricket in the TNCA first-division league and got some short-format practice playing for Chepauk Super Gillies in the Tamil Nadu Premier League. While his returns in the 2016 edition - four wickets from nine matches at an economy-rate of nearly 10 - weren't particularly impressive, things got better this year where he managed eight wickets, giving away fewer runs in his team's march to the title.
A fitter, more confident Yo Mahesh was thus primed for the rigours of a full season. Cutting to the present, he knew his skills with the bat kept him in reckoning for a spot in the state side. Sure enough, with their depleted pace attack, Tamil Nadu turned to him for their game against Mumbai.
"Last year, the fast bowlers had a great season, they were probably the pillars of the team," he says. "I always thought I could bring a different dimension to the team with my bowling, my batting as well as my fielding. I am not saying something bad about the other fast bowlers - they are really great and fantastic, the young players shouldered the Tamil Nadu team last year. But, I always knew that I had something extra in me to contribute to the side and I always thought I can make a comeback."
As Mumbai batted first, Yo Mahesh, in his first day of first-class cricket since New Year's Day in 2013, opened the bowling and knocked over Akhil Herwadkar and Suryakumar Yadav. His more defining contribution, though. would come later in the piece, with the bat. On Thursday, Tamil Nadu were seven wickets down and still 87 adrift of Mumbai's first-innings total of 374. B Indrajith was batting like a dream, but he needed support in the wake of quick wickets in the morning. Yo Mahesh provided him with that and more.
While he was restrained in the company of Indrajith, the latter's dismissal saw him play a more dominant, yet responsible, role to add 72 runs for the ninth wicket with a patient Rahil Shah. Soon, Yo Mahesh switched gears, and when he brought up his fifty with a four and a six off successive deliveries, Tamil Nadu had got into the lead. Sure enough, he brought up his maiden first-class century with a boundary as well, and remained unbeaten as Tamil Nadu finished with a lead of 76 runs.
There was an element of deja vu to his lower-middle-order-marshall act. During the Ranji Trophy semi-finals against the same opponents in 2011-12, Tamil Nadu had slumped to 139 for 6 when he put on a 150-run partnership with R Prasanna, the current fielding coach of the side, to rescue the side. Tamil Nadu went on to win the game on the basis of the first-innings lead.
"That experienced really helped me a lot," he says of the match."After Inder [Indrajith] got out, I had to take the responsibility. I kind of helped Rahil and Vignesh, I passed on to them as well - playing safe to their main bowlers, who we should attack, who is going to bowl where, we shared that kind of information among ourselves. "
At 29, Yo Mahesh knows he has missed four years of "good time" in his career, but is, by his own admission, better for the experiences - both on and off the field. Cricket has had a hand in his finding the love of his life as well - he met his wife Anusha during his days with Delhi Daredevils, where she worked in the marketing department.
"It feels really nice to be back in the Tamil Nadu set-up and performing well for the team. It was definitely a tough phase for me to be missing out on four years of really good time in my career. But I would like to take the positives out of it. I learnt a lot. I worked on my cricket and on my personal life, everything. It was a long journey, but it was a great learning for me as well."