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Match Analysis

Back-up man Abhinav Mukund makes peace with his role

From being on the verge of giving up the game five years ago to making a comeback on the sheer weight of his runs, the stand-in India opener has come quite some way

On what was largely a pointless day of Test cricket - India furthered their advantage against a prone host team with no needle left in the contest - an otherwise similarly mundane arithmetical calculation assumed significance. As you saw Abhinav Mukund try to cash in and score a hundred that wouldn't tell you a lot about his future, and as you saw a smile at the end of the day even though he didn't get the hundred, you realised eight years ago he was a bubbling 19-year-old. And what the subsequent eight years have brought him.
"Baby" they used to call him in the Tamil Nadu side captained by Dinesh Karthik and coached by WV Raman. Abhinav was one half of the best opening partnership in Ranji Trophy - Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were opening for India - and Karthik reckoned Abhinav and M Vijay were not just the best opening combination but individually too the best openers outside the India Test XI.
That year, Vijay replaced Gambhir, who had been banned after making physical contact with Shane Watson on the field, and immediately felt at home. Abhinav soon followed Vijay into the India Test side as Sehwag and Gambhir both pushed their injury treatments post-IPL and into the Test tours of the West Indies and England. It was a tough initiation, especially the tour of England, where India lost all four Tests. Abhinav scored 49 against a red-hot England attack at Lord's, but played only one more Test in the next six years.
These were years of hell. He would score runs in domestic cricket, but that wouldn't matter. Sadly, even when he didn't score runs in domestic, even that wouldn't matter. He told ESPNcricinfo last year how he wanted to give up on cricket in the season just after his brief tryst with the Test side, how he didn't even want to watch cricket. Then there was a time when he wanted to play and didn't have a side.
"I was just raring to even put on whites," Abhinav said of this period after he fell on 81 in India's second innings. "I wasn't part of any team, I wasn't part of any first-class team. There was a time when I was dropped from my own first-class team. To have this opportunity to be part of the Indian team is such a huge bonus. I take every game as an opportunity, that's all. If I am part of the team, not part of the team, again, I will try to do my best wherever I am."
It was clearly a dark period for him. "I had a lot of time to think about it," Abhinav said when asked if he felt unlucky to be dropped when he was. "I had six years to think about it. I think you [the media] had too. I don't want to talk about it. I have gone through my ups and downs, and that is a long long time back. I don't even want to get there. I am happy I am back in the squad."
Abhinav did put on the whites in style in the seasons leading up to his comeback to the Test side, scoring runs in Ranji Trophy, and in Duleep Trophy, with the pink ball. Unfortunately, he was now the No. 3 opener in the squad, and had to wait for his chance. As he waited, he dropped - as a substitute - Steven Smith in the Pune Test that India lost. He dealt with the frustration a little differently to how he did earlier.
"I felt really bad," Abhinav said. "Once you drop a catch, it is not like you can go back and do something. It wasn't a difficult chance either. It was quite a sitter. Ninety-nine times out of 100, I would have caught it. Haunted me a couple of times. Again I knew my opportunity would come where I could take something, I could prove that I was a good fielder at that position."
The opportunity came in Galle where he ran Upul Tharanga out from silly point when the batsman had barely stepped out, following it up with a stunning catch at the same position to send Niroshan Dickwella back.
"Hopefully two more-three more come tomorrow and I can prove myself better," Abhinav said. "I wanted to be a specialist somewhere. In the Indian team, it is very important that you be a specialist fielder somewhere. I have worked a lot with [R] Sridhar [the fielding coach]. He has been a great asset for me. He has made it mandatory that we take a certain number of catches every day. Also the fitness aspect as well. It is important that you are fit to stand under the helmet for 70-80 overs. So a lot of credit to Mr Basu [Shankar, the trainer]."
It would have been nice for Abhinav to get a Test century, just get the maiden one out of the way, but he fell to what turned out to be the last ball of the day. A century, though, should not be the point. As it is, even if he had got the century, he would possibly would be left out for Colombo, with KL Rahul now fit: Shikhar Dhawan, who was behind Abhinav in the queue, played a better innings when it meant more.
If Abhinav is left out, though, he is likely to deal with it much better than he used to deal with disappointments. He is better equipped now. Life has equipped him better. His smile when admitting he dropped a "sitter" tells you that. He was a bubbling 19-year-old "baby" eight years ago, but Abhinav Mukund is a man at peace with himself now.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo