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Record-breaker N Jagadeesan leaving fear of failure behind in KKR IPL stint

After trying hard but getting nowhere, and being let go by CSK, the keeper-batter decided it was time free himself up and has since been an unstoppable force on the domestic circuit

Deivarayan Muthu
In a strange way, N Jagadeesan's life has come full circle. After struggling to make an impact at Chennai Super Kings - well, which wicketkeeper could thrive in the shadow of MS Dhoni? - Jagadeesan is ready to carve out his own identity at Kolkata Knight Riders, and here he has the help of one of his old coaches.
When Jagadeesan was about ten years old, he got an opportunity to train with Chandrakant Pandit at Andheri, in Mumbai, which formed the foundation stone for his cricketing career. His father CJ Narayan, who played cricket for Tata Electric in Mumbai before shifting to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, had managed to get him to work with Pandit at the time. More than a decade-and-a-half later, Jagadeesan has reunited with Pandit at Knight Riders in the IPL following a record-breaking domestic season with Tamil Nadu.
"Definitely I think it [reuniting with Chandrakant Pandit] is very special," Jagadeesan tells ESPNcricinfo. "When I was in my Under-13 days, my dad always made sure every summer I went to Mumbai since he was a cricketer himself and he knew a lot of people there. For example, Chandu sir and all were his team-mates. He was able to set me up with a camp where Chandu sir was also the coach over there and you know I think it was of immense help to my cricketing journey. At a very young age when you experience red-soil wickets in Mumbai, it's something that's different and every time you play, you start learning things and it's more exposure as well.
"Obviously right now, I'm very happy to be with Chandu sir at KKR. It's a special feeling because he saw me when I was 11 years old and now I'm at KKR, where he is the coach, and I'm truly excited. We all know the kind of heroics he has done in the domestic circuit where he has won almost all the trophies with different teams. I'm excited to learn how to win."
Having been released by Super Kings, Jagadeesan didn't expect to be picked at the IPL 2023 auction last December. So, around this time of the year, he had originally planned to play league cricket abroad. But, after a remarkable turnaround, he could well be opening the batting and keeping wicket regularly for Knight Riders.
In the domestic-season-opening T20 competition, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Jagadeesan had managed only 118 runs in six innings at an average of 29.50 and strike rate of 131.11 and towards the end of the tournament, he was even pushed down the order. The runs didn't flow in the one-dayers against a touring Bangladeshi side, which included a number of BPL players, at Chepauk in November either, and in the same month, he was let go by Super Kings.
Jagadeesan did some soul searching and with nothing to lose now, he felt liberated from the fear of failure. He always had a wide range of strokes in his repertoire - he once switch-hit Shane Watson during an IPL trial at Royal Challengers Bangalore and stunned him - but a safety-first approach often held him back during match scenarios. He let go of that approach during the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy and became the first batter in history to hit five successive List A centuries. The tally included 277 off 141 balls against Arunachal Pradesh, the highest-ever score in List A cricket.
"The first thing I had to do was to not have any expectations out of my own game," Jagadeesan says. "I've always had this expectation where I've always been this guy who wants to achieve something. Every time I go somewhere I want to go higher and higher. Every time I kept thinking about it, I didn't realise that it was adding a lot more pressure on me. I'm someone who is a free-flowing batsman, but I kept adding this pressure on me and I somehow had the feeling that I wasn't able to express my game. Every time I wanted to play a shot - because of all these goals I had in my head - it curbed me.
"I had that fear and there was one thing I told myself this year: for all these years, I've tried to achieve something, and I've gone nowhere and just been stagnant. For now, let me not think about anything and it is okay to get dropped. That was not going to be the end of the road. So, that kind of shift in my mental state was something which gave me a lot of freedom inside and every time I stepped onto the field, it made me express myself."
Jagadeesan wasn't desperate to impress the IPL scouts and make his way back into the IPL either. He was just at peace with his new-found freedom in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and took the release from Super Kings in his stride.
"It was definitely a reality check when they released me and I didn't want to keep clustering my head saying 'okay I need to get picked by an IPL team', but I just faced the reality, looking at the numbers and the way they released me," Jagadeesan says. "I was very sure that I was not going to get picked for the next IPL and I had other options.
"One thing I was sure of was that I will be part of the Chennai league, which is one of the best in the country, so I was keen on playing those matches and once the season got over, I would get a short break where I could play somewhere else. So, it just made me realise that it was not the end of the road if I get dropped in the current side. I can still go to other places and play cricket and I can learn a lot and it can be a different experience. Since then, I've just tried to stay in the present and just kept options open without expectations."
"I think the knowledge that I've gained from Michael Hussey is immense. I just can't put it in words because a player of his stature and the way he talks to me about the game, it just feels like: 'My god, how can a guy be like him'."
N Jagadeesan on his former Super Kings team-mate
Jagadeesan's improved power-hitting was also on bright display during the first-class Ranji Trophy, where he and his opening partner B Sai Sudharsan nearly mowed down 144 in 11 overs against Hyderabad before bad light intervened and the game ended in a draw. The boundaries at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, where that game was being played, are bigger than the ones at Chepauk, but Jagadeesan kept clearing them, despite the presence of a number of outfielders. He attributes his recent power-hitting success to a stint with RX Murali, Mayank Agarwal's personal coach, in Bengaluru.
"I definitely felt a difference when I went there because, at that point of time, I was in a state where nothing was happening for me," Jagadeesan says. "I was putting in the hard yards, but it wasn't quite reflecting in the way I was batting. But I just had the feeling that I need to do something different and that's when I came to train with RX [Murali] sir and worked with him for a week or so in Bengaluru.
"That's when I actually learned a bit more of power-hitting and that just came in very handy; once I got to know what I needed to do for power, I've been practicing since. I've taken the ingredients that he gave me and was trying to get better each and every day. Power-hitting is something that is very important in modern cricket. So I feel that has helped me a lot."
During his stint with Super Kings, Michael Hussey was Jagadeesan's sounding board and go-to man. They used to spend a lot of time together at the nets, and even during the IPL off-season Hussey often tracked Jagadeesan's domestic progress. Though Jagadeesan got just seven games across five seasons with Super Kings, he believes that his training sessions and conversations with Hussey have helped him problem-solve challenges that have come his way.
"I think the knowledge that I've gained from Michael Hussey is immense. I just can't put it in words because a player of his stature and the way he talks to me about the game, it just feels like: 'My god, how can a guy be like him'. He has told me a lot of stuff that he has been through. It's not like he was always scoring runs and he kept telling me that he made his debut for Australia when he was 30 years old.
"He had to go through a long grind before entering the Australian side and I've always spoken to him about how his mindset was and what were the kind of things that he did to not lose motivation - those are the kind of conversations we had. Mentally, the kind of person he is… he is always so strong and told me what has worked for him and how I can prepare before the game. Obviously, some things he has told me I've never experienced before and as soon as he told me all this stuff, it was like a different dimension."
As the only frontline Indian keeper in Knight Riders' side, Jagadeesan is likely to get a decent run in IPL 2023. Knight Riders' assistant coach Abhishek Nayar acknowledged that Jagadeesan will be a key member of the side after buying him at the auction for INR 90 lakh (USD 109,000 approx).
Jagadeesan is excited about playing for a new franchise, but he believes that success or failure in the coming weeks will not define him. He will just play like he has nothing to lose, since he didn't even expect to be part of IPL 2023 in the first place.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo