As the Madhya Pradesh team was going through its warm-up drills at Holkar Stadium on Sunday morning, ahead of its Ranji Trophy season-opener against Railways, MP coach Mukesh Sahani noticed that Mohnish Mishra, the vice-captain, was stiffer than usual. Sahani wasn't surprised, since Mishra was marking a return to top-flight cricket after serving a one-year suspension imposed by the BCCI for having indulged in "loose talk" and brought disrepute to Indian cricket, following a sting operation into alleged corruption in domestic cricket by India TV in May 2012.
"He just walked up to me and told me, 'You are thinking much more than what you should be,'" Mishra told ESPNcricinfo. "He asked me to set all other thoughts aside and concentrate only on the ball that would be coming at me. That is precisely what I did, and I am kind of relieved it worked."
The result was a near-perfect return to domestic cricket for Mishra, who threw his wicket away just three runs shy of what would have been his sixth first-class century. Still, his knock of 97, played in his trademark attacking style and helping MP cruise to 282 for 3 at stumps on day one, could be enough to silence those who raised eyebrows over his appointment as captain Devendra Bundela's deputy. And it was enough to reassure Mishra that he still belonged at this level.
"When you cannot play at this level for one full season, somewhere down the line you start asking yourself whether you belong here. Once I survived the initial anxiety, I knew that I was back to where I belonged and was keen to justify it," Mishra said. "Besides, the competition is so fierce nowadays that despite the MP Cricket Association, coaches, captain and selectors giving me full assurance, I knew I had to make their confidence count at the earliest."
Sahani agreed that it was crucial from both Mishra's and the team's perspective for him to come good at the earliest. "Having known him well since his Under-19 days, I knew that the sooner he got a decent score the better it would for everyone, to get the monkey off his back. And I am glad that he has managed to deliver in the first innings."
For more than half a decade before his suspension, Mishra was a vital cog in MP's line-up. In fact, in the 2011-12 season, he had led MP in the domestic one-day and Twenty20 competitions. As a result, for Sahani and the selectors, led by Narendra Hirwani, it was a "no-brainer" for him to be appointed vice-captain once he was available.
Even though Mishra couldn't play competitive cricket last year, he didn't give up training "even for a single day" all through the year. He was practising hard at his club in Bhopal and keeping in touch with his MP coaches and team-mates. "Not once did anyone make me feel I was unwanted, because they knew I hadn't done anything that would have shamed anyone. That helped me keep myself on my toes."
Mishra said the biggest change the forced one-year break brought was "maturity". "I started to know myself better - both as a person and a cricketer," Mishra said. "I had so much time to think about myself and my cricket that would help me in revitalising my dream of playing for India. That's why I am as disappointed with myself as I am happy today. Delighted, obviously, for coming good on my return. And disappointed for having missed out on a century and remaining unbeaten at the end of the day's play by playing a rash shot."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo