When Madhya Pradesh set Mumbai a largely-academic target of 233 after lunch on the final day of the Ranji Trophy quarter-final in Indore, the joke in the media box was that the hosts had a chance if TP Sudhindra could bowl unchanged from both ends. Sudhindra had enhanced his growing reputation as MP's strike-and-stock bowler with figures of 40-12-96-5 in the first innings. He had also become the leading wicket-taker in this Ranji season with 40 victims at an average of 18.70.
Not bad for someone who had given up on cricket twice, after starting out as a specialist wicketkeeper. Destiny kept pulling Sudhindra back to the game he loved. The pursuit of an MBA could not lure him away; the grind of chartered accountancy (CA) could not engulf him. "I took a break from cricket in class 12," Sudhindra told ESPNcricinfo. "I had planned to go to Pune, get a commerce degree and get an MBA, do what people normally do. But then my father's financial position got bad and he told me to pursue my studies from Bhilai [his hometown in Chhattisgarh].
"Just getting a commerce degree did not appeal to me. I wanted to do something else along with it. I resumed playing cricket. Luckily that year, Chhattisgarh played the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup for the first time and I was selected for that side. That was a big motivation."
Having given up on his MBA plans, Sudhindra had started taking coaching for CA. "I gave the first examination, but passed only in Math. Maine kaha hataao (I said, that's it), then I resumed cricket once again. I had put on a lot of weight by then."
Sudhindra worked hard to get back in shape and was selected for the MP Under-22 side in 2003. By that time, he had given up keeping to focus on his bowling. "During my U-16 days, my coach had told me that your height [6'2"] and build is good, take a chance with bowling. We had three, four keepers in our team anyway. I played as a batsman and did some bowling part-time, took three wickets, and then built on from there." The call-up to the MP senior side arrived in 2005-06, after Sudhindra took a bagful of wickets at the U-22 level.
Barely had a couple of seasons passed before the Indian Cricket League (ICL) changed the course of his life yet again. "The [financial] situation at home forced me a bit. I knew it [the ICL move] would hamper my cricket. It was somewhat an emotional decision. When someone puts so much money in front of you thoda dimaag ghum jaata hai (it plays havoc with your mind).
The ICL money was certainly important for Sudhindra but the Twenty20 league also taught him cricketing lessons. "It gave me confidence to bowl against top international batsmen. To suddenly play against such top players is an achievement. Going from the Ranji Plate League to the ICL felt a bit tough initially but I thought that, 'once I have taken the plunge, I have to do it'. I became tougher mentally. Batsmen are aggressive in the shorter format."
After the banned ICL players were given amnesty by the BCCI, Sudhindra, now 25, had to make a fresh case for a spot in the MP attack. Fortunately for him, he got the chance to play two practice games against Punjab before the start of the 2009-10 Ranji season. "The first match was in Patiala on a very flat pitch. I did not get a wicket. I could not sleep for two nights. I felt that this was it; it was the time to hang up my boots.
"In Chandigarh, in the second game, I took a five-for in each innings. That gave me a chance in the Ranji Trophy. I still play with the feeling that I have only one match left to play and I have to perform. Even now, when wickets are not coming my way, I think about that Chandigarh match."
A stable place in the side has given Sudhindra the opportunity to understand his bowling and sharpen it. Pace isn't his strength [he bowls in the mid-120s]; so accuracy has become non-negotiable. On the second morning of the quarter-final, he bowled almost every delivery around the off stump. Mumbai's Kaustubh Pawar and Hiken Shah kept leaving, and Sudhindra kept sending them down in the channel. When Shah finally nicked one to the cordon just before lunch, Sudhindra stood in the middle of the pitch and roared.
"I knew I would have to bowl a lot this season and was prepared for the responsibility. I have bowled for three hours at a stretch in nets. I used to speak to a lot of people, like Narendra Hirwani, Amay Khurasia, Harvinder Sodhi, about bowling long spells. I used to talk about quality bowling, about the thought process behind our preparation.
"Everyone told me to concentrate on my basics. Not to try too many things. Cricket has always been a game of basics. Rajesh Chauhan, who is also from Bhilai, discusses a lot with me on bowling. He told me that the moment you deviate from the basics, problems begin."
Sudhindra stresses on the importance of pushing himself mentally during training. "I have toughened mentally and have developed a lot of patience. In our summer camp, we used to get tired after practice. That used to be challenging for me. I had to push myself at that moment. When your mind and body stops responding, at that time how do you react, I had to focus and work on that. At that time you discover new things about yourself."
This is Sudhindra's first season in the Ranji Elite League, where pitches are usually flatter than those in the Plate League. He's learnt to focus on subtle things, such as using the crease and fiddling with field placements. "On flat wickets, I try to move the ball around and play around with field settings. Wickets in Elite are mostly slow and batsman-friendly so my target is to attack with the new ball. I used to struggle a bit against left-handers. I have worked on that a lot. I have also worked on my speed and on tactics in general. My approach is always to attack as long as I keep bowling to continuously trouble batsmen.
"Against a top batting line-up like Tamil Nadu, I saw that the batsmen were not taking chances against me and were not comfortable. I felt happy that what I had been working on for long had worked. My economy-rate against them was below two on a flat wicket." [He had figures of 32-9-58-0 in the first innings.]
He knows that MP's progress to the quarter-finals gave him visibility in what has turned out to be a breakthrough season. "Only if the team does well will individual performances get noticed."