Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun
Abhimanyu Easwaran came into Ranji Trophy 2017-18 on the back of some good performances in the Duleep Trophy and the List A games against New Zealand A. However, three of the Bengal opener's first four innings yielded only single-digit scores. More worryingly, Abhimanyu fell twice to incoming deliveries from Vidarbha seamer Lalit Yadav in the same match.
Ranganathan Parameshwaran Easwaran, his father, coach and mentor, was determined to do something about it. A day after the match, which Vidarbha won by 10 wickets, Easwaran flew his son to Delhi where six fast bowlers were at hand to help him sort his game against the incoming delivery. With the threat of Sandeep Sharma and Siddarth Kaul, two fine swing bowlers, looming in Bengal's next game against Punjab, Easwaran reckoned it was important to fix Abhimanyu's technique immediately. With Abhimanyu's coach Apurva Desai by his side, Easwaran watched his son slog it out for more than seven hours over two sessions.
The rewards were as handsome as they were instant: Abhimanyu batted for more than five-and a-half hours to score 117 in Bengal's innings victory in Amritsar. The 22-year-old has since followed it up with a pair of centuries against Gujarat in the quarter-finals where Bengal prevailed by virtue of their first-innings lead. Until the semi-final, Abhimanyu had scored 547 runs at an average of 54.7, and was Bengal's second-highest run-getter behind opening partner Abhishek Raman, who had scored 40 more runs having played one more game.
The preparatory work in Delhi wasn't a one-off quick-fix; such routines have been an intrinsic part of Abhimanyu's life since childhood. On the surface, it is a fairly regular Indian tale: the father keeps his dreams alive through his son and equips him with every necessary tool to fulfilla shared destiny. Indian domestic cricket has seldom been short of such examples: the Baba brothers, Aparajith and Indrajith, and Vijay Shankar of Tamil Nadu, for instance, have had pitches laid out for them at their homes, while Armaan Jaffer's father Kaleem doubles up as his son's coach.
What makes Abhimanyu's tale interesting is the sheer scale of different factors that have come together in his young career. His father, a Tamilian born in Nagpur and raised in Dehradun, was a promising long-distance runner and a club cricketer. His family's not-so-sound financial health meant Easwaran had to trade his cricketing ambitions for a career in chartered accountancy, but his "veembu" (loosely translated means stubbornness) meant he launched the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy (ACA) along with a friend in Dehradun in 1988. He insisted on the name Abhimanyu, after the mythical warrior from the Mahabharata, who, according to Easwaran, was "a man born with talent."
Not long after, Easwaran married a Punjabi and their second child, a boy, was named Abhimanyu. Once Easwaran realised Abhimanyu was hooked to cricket, he arranged for his formal training at the ACA, which had moved to a more expansive location. Realising that exposure to different conditions would accelerate Abhimanyu's growth as a batsman, Easwaran sent him to play in cities like Nagpur and Delhi before Kolkata became his permanent base. Kolkata, Easwaran reasoned, had a good standard of age-group cricket, and Abhimanyu lived there with Nirmal Sengupta, who coached him.
While Easwaran isn't a trained coach himself, working closely with coaches at the ACA helped him understand Abhimanyu's needs better. As Abhimanyu came through the ranks, his father, with the help of coaches like Sengupta, Desai and Manoj Rawat, would watch and make copious notes of every game and every practice session Abhimanyu batted in.
Easwaran says he speaks with his son around four times a day about his cricket - right from his dismissals to areas needing correction or improvement. With father and son in different cities, they don't meet as often as they would like to. Easwaran has made peace with the fact, likening Abhimanyu's time away from home to being in a gurukul (a type of residential schooling system in ancient India). Some may call it obsessive parenting, but Abhimanyu doesn't think that's the case.
"I was passionate about the game right from a young age, and my dad has just given me every possible facility for me to do well," Abhimanyu tells ESPNcricinfo. "Not once has he discouraged me from playing the game. It's more my interest and passion in it rather than someone putting pressure on me."
Easwaran, for his part, feels there is no point creating a stressful environment for his son. "When I moved the ACA to a bigger location, my dad was worried that I was putting pressure on Abhimanyu," Easwaran says. "I sat him down and explained why I was doing it. The academy is my venture; I wanted to give something back to cricket. My goal is to have at least four players from the academy playing for India. I wasn't even married when I started it in 1988, so it isn't as if the academy was started only for Abhimanyu. When I expanded it, Abhimanyu was only about nine-and-a-half-years old. At that age, you don't even know if he is going to take to a career in professional cricket. There is no point in shouting or getting angry at him [when he doesn't perform well]; it is only about offering the right kind of guidance."
Like Armaan Jaffer, who reportedly at one point wasn't allowed to use a phone, Abhimanyu has a few restrictions. Easwaran doesn't allow him to play pool, for instance. "You only need to make him responsible and self-aware. I only make sure he doesn't have any distractions. I don't want him to fall into bad company. His mobile phone doesn't have a screen-lock and he is not on Facebook. But, I want him to have a positive pastime and I encourage him to watch movies. He has anyway been a very mature, responsible kid, so that way I didn't have to tell him much," Easwaran said.
In recent times, the ACA has become one of the most sought-after facilities for domestic sides, with Tamil Nadu using it as their pre-season training base over the last two years, and players like Dinesh Karthik and Shreyas Iyer practising there. With nine pitches - five main turfs and four practice strips - floodlights, gyms, tennis courts and swimming pools, according to Easwaran, the ACA also has a unit called National School of Cricket (NSC) where "education is combined with cricket". Easwaran, who quit his job as a "partner in one of the top-20 firms of northern India" but has stayed on as consultant, says the ACA and NSC have made profits and puts the monthly figure at around INR 15 lakh. Such things mark out Abhimanyu as a privileged kid. How, then, does Abhimanyu deal with the baggage that comes with it?
"If you are born with something, you can't change it," Abhimanyu says pragmatically. "I have been lucky enough, and obviously it is an advantage." He denies, however, that the pressure to do well - considering the advantages - weigh him down. "There is the pressure of performing always," he says. "When you don't do so well, obviously they [family] don't feel good even if they don't show it. But, there is no point taking that pressure into the ground because I need to stay focused on what I need to do."
Easwaran admits Abhimanyu's success as a cricketer acts as a catalyst for him to do more with his academy, but says his son doesn't receive any special privileges. "Even when players line up for their share of energy drink, Abhimanyu doesn't jump the queue. He is respectful with coaches and doesn't throw his weight around," Easwaran says. "Even if he shows up, he won't be given preference when someone else is batting. He will be treated as just another cricketer. Maybe, we would give him more time, but that is also done after the [regular] session is over. In any case, he doesn't come here as often these days given his schedule."
Abhimanyu's schedule has also featured lessons from batting great VVS Laxman, a consultant with the Cricket Association of Bengal. The takeaways have been a couple of handy technical tips, but, more importantly, Abhimanyu feels he has learnt a great deal about the mental side of things. "Working with him has helped me gain greater clarity about my batting and game-plans."
Except for his debut season in 2013-14 where he averaged a measly 17.62, Abhimanyu has consistently been among the runs, often averaging in the high 40s. This season, though, has seen him bat with greater application. "A good example of this was during the Duleep Trophy final [in Lucknow]," he says. "It was a turning track right from the start and spinners were in operation early on. So, getting runs on such wickets was satisfying. I had gone to Delhi and other places before the start of the season and practised on different kinds of pitches. That definitely helped me adapt my game to different conditions."
Two days before the semi-final against Delhi, even as Abhimanyu took some time off to watch a movie with his team-mates, his father was confident Abhimanyu could be the defining factor in the game. "I feel he can make Bengal win. There are two games [in the knockouts]. If he drops anchor, the first-innings game is theirs," Easwaran says. "I don't work when the match is on, so I have to begin working after stumps and stay awake till early in the morning." For five days, Easwaran will have long nights and early mornings, but he is unlikely to complain so long as Abhimanyu piles on the runs.