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The fall and rise of Abhinav Mukund

How Tamil Nadu's captain went from wanting to quit the game to scoring heavily

Arun Venugopal
Abhinav Mukund: "This is the happiest I have been in a long time, and I just want to continue enjoying the game like tomorrow is the last day I am playing."  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Abhinav Mukund: "This is the happiest I have been in a long time, and I just want to continue enjoying the game like tomorrow is the last day I am playing."  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Abhinav Mukund last played a Test match more than five years ago. Five years is a long time - governments change, inflation pinches, and new fads are born. Five years is a particularly long time in sport. Abhinav has risen, fallen and risen again in that time.
He began the 2016-17 domestic season with 77 and 169 in India's first-class debut with the pink ball, and then went on to smash 91 and 82 not out in the semi-final and final of the inaugural Tamil Nadu Premier League T20 tournament to help Tuti Patriots clinch the title. A few weeks later, he scored a fifty and two centuries in the first three matches of the Ranji Trophy. His recent numbers and markedly relaxed approach, however, were a world away from his struggles in the last few years.
In 2012-13 he was, in his own words, at an all-time low. He wanted to give up the game. He didn't even want to watch cricket. Abhinav does not call it depression, but rather a case of wanting something too badly. It reflected in his performance - his average dipped from nearly 73 in the previous Ranji Trophy season to under 30.
"I think I was caught in a mix of trying to get back [into the Indian team] constantly," he says. "To be honest, till I played for the country, I wanted to play for the country, but never played for that. I always played to perform, I always played to win each game and do well for my team in each game. My expectations changed of myself.
"The 2012-13 season was a complete blur. I had played about 60-odd games in 2011-12, and had scored a 154 in the Irani Trophy and a double hundred in the Ranji. Yet, I was left out of the Indian team. After the 2012 season, I was also left out of the IPL. So, it was all a big hit on the head."
In 2013, things appeared to look up for Abhinav when Derbyshire showed interest in signing him. He was even given a contract, but the signing did not take place eventually because of a "miscommunication". Abhinav tried to get over the disappointment by relentlessly working on his batting; he altered his trigger movement and made a few other technical changes, but they didn't work for him.
"I think the mistakes - if I look back at it I wouldn't call it a mistake, I'd still call it learning - cropped up because I wanted to do well so badly. I wanted to refine my technique to be the most perfect batsman. Then again, that's a process every cricketer goes through - learning and unlearning."
Things continued to go downhill, as Abhinav was dropped from Tamil Nadu's side for the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the domestic 50-overs tournament. He says there were people saying things behind his back, but he didn't take it personally. "It is an insecure world when you don't perform. Even in a corporate job, they will chuck you out," he says. "People will see you as a baggage because you have played for your country and you are not doing anything for your state. There were so many times I wanted to quit. I didn't quite enjoy what I was doing. I even told my family about it."
Abhinav's family and friends, however, didn't push him any harder and instead allowed him the space to look inwards. For two months in 2014, Abhinav didn't even pick up his bat. Instead, he binged on movies, took up surfing lessons and even learnt a foreign language.
Abhinav says his father, TS Mukund, a former cricketer himself, was his biggest sounding board at that time. "Unlike what everyone else in the city thinks - that my father drives me to play the game - it's in fact the other way around," he says. "My dad and mom obviously want their son to be a great cricketer, but more than that they want to see their kid happy. Thankfully I didn't get into any sort of bad habits because I had a core group around me - my friends and parents."
It was around that time that Abhinav received an offer to play club cricket for Loughborough Town CC in Leicestershire. Like every club cricketer, he had to remain self-dependent while playing as a professional; the experience gave him a completely new outlook on life and cricket.
"There they play cricket for fun. That's a concept that doesn't exist in our country. They play cricket during the weekends to relax," he says. "I had to do everything by myself - I had to drive, I had to arrange for my own net bowlers, roll the wicket, pull the ropes for the ground and pull the sightscreen. During some games it would be raining, but we would still play on. I think as a lot [in India] we have been so pampered by how we should be careful in such conditions.
"Sometimes, when you went out there, half the wicket would be damp, the other half would be good for batting. There is no room for complaining. Even though the cricketing standards weren't great, it was good for me as an all-round cricketer. I think that's what got me through that season."
"My dad and mom obviously want their son to be a great cricketer, but more than that they want to see their kid happy."
When Abhinav returned, he found himself captaining the Tamil Nadu side midway through the Ranji Trophy in 2014-15. He also found form to score 858 runs at an average of 45.15 and led Tamil Nadu to the final. Even when most people within Tamil Nadu's cricket circle weren't aware of what Abhinav was going through, WV Raman, the state's coach at the time, always listened.
"Both times when I was struggling for form - in 2009 and then recently - I was lucky to have him around," Abhinav says. "I have always felt he used to take a lot of pressure from external sources and protect the younger players from it. He would never give me any sort of bullshit, which is something I always appreciate. We had a lot of arguments about my technique. I could tell him that I wasn't comfortable with it.
"Even as captain, we used to have arguments about a certain player, but at the end of the day he would give me the player I wanted. A lot of people think he is extremely short tempered, but I genuinely feel he's a reasonable man."
Rather than being bogged down by captaincy, the cricket junkie in Abhinav relished the opportunity. "I constantly watch every single game on television. I love looking at a batsman and thinking how can I get him out, where can I keep a field for him or what bowler I bowl to him."
Being privy to the insecurities of so many players was also an eye-opener as captain. "I am actually proud to say I helped a few players along their way. I don't think Vijay Shankar started his career well, I don't think [Baba] Indrajith started his career too well. [Baba] Aparajith was already established, but was still struggling in the scene a little bit. I faced a lot of pressure from the management to drop players because they weren't performing, but I still backed them."
In recent times, Abhinav realised he needed to do more to attain the fitness levels required of elite athletes. He subsequently trained for three months this summer under the guidance of the India team's trainer, Shankar Basu, and brought his fat percentage down to 16. He has continued to stay off rice and substituted it with quinoa. "I really worked my ass off," he says. "I did some power work, I did a lot of running on the ground. I had a mobile app with which I used to count every single gram of protein I had each day."
Until a few years ago, Abhinav would reward himself every time he scored a hundred. He has revived that habit again. "I feel I am in a good space physically and mentally right now. There is no fear of getting out.
"I was so dejected after the first innings of Duleep Trophy. I got a 77, I wanted to get a hundred. That's something that gives me joy. That's something I used to do before I got selected into the Indian team. Maybe I got too casual that I was getting hundreds so easily. So, I started gifting myself in February."
As Abhinav steps into his tenth year of domestic cricket, it is easy to mistake him for someone older than 26 and, thereby over the hill especially when it comes to international cricket. Abhinav feels such perceptions are unfair, but he can't do much about them. "I am not saying I am the most competent batsman around, but I have worked really hard to be constantly playing the Duleep Trophy and A tours. That's a lot down to the selectors as well because they are constantly looking at me. I don't want to talk much about India selection because it's not in my hands."
Abhinav is grateful for how things have fallen in place, and doesn't want to put undue pressure on himself like in the past. "I just want to be one of the best players I can be," he says. "I don't want to look at numbers. I have done that in the past, but not anymore. This is the happiest I have been in a long time, and I just want to continue enjoying the game like tomorrow is the last day I am playing."

Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun