A few years ago, Abhinav Mukund was so obsessed with making a comeback to the Indian team that it ended up having a negative effect on him and his career. He decided he needed a break from cricket. In due course, the enjoyment returned and a big part in his transformation was a change in his mindset. He let go of the anxiety of selection and focused on what he’s best known for – scoring big.

The runs flowed, the selectors noticed it and he has been rewarded with a recall to the Indian Test squad after over five years, for the one-off Test against Bangladesh starting February 9. Abhinav admitted that he didn’t even realise the selection meeting was taking place on Tuesday, so the news must have been a very pleasant surprise.

Not a surprise selection

The fact that Abhinav finds himself in the Test squad shouldn’t be a surprise. He launched the 2016-’17 domestic season with 77 and 169 in the Duleep Trophy, negotiating the pink ball well, and for his native Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy, scored four more centuries for the season. His first-class tally for the season stood at 1,124 runs at an average of 62. He had hit a purple patch, both with his batting and captaincy, as Tamil Nadu reached the semi-finals of the country’s premier first-class competition, only to be defeated by 41-time champions Mumbai.

After an underwhelming 2015-’16 domestic season, Abhinav worked out that his issues were less technical and more mental and physical. When the 2016-’17 season started, he felt lighter, both in mind and body.

“I wanted to put myself in a really good space, so in the off season I wanted to check all boxes, like the mental side of things,” Abhinav told Scroll.in. “I thought I wasn’t as fit as I could be, so I worked hard at it. Technically I haven’t changed anything as such. I’m batting the same way. I wanted to be more consistent and bring back the hunger for scoring big hundreds.

Abhinav scored 77 and 169 in the Duleep Trophy (Image credit: PTI)

‘Turning point’

“The Duleep Trophy was the turning point. I wasn’t desperate to prove a point, but I just focused on playing my natural game. I saw myself on TV and realised how much weight I had lost. I’ve lost a truckload of weight and I don’t know I put on so much in the first place.”

Abhinav played the last of his five Tests in 2011 at Trent Bridge. Later that year, he passed 1,000 first-class runs for the season for the second time in his career, yet he fell off the selectors’ radar. His form dipped in 2012-’13, and it was around then when his love for the game started to wither. For a couple of months, he switched off from cricket, and as a coping mechanism, he indulged in healthy distractions like taking up surfing on the Covelong coast, south of Chennai, and learning the basics of a foreign language. Even today, he keeps with his surfing hobby.

“It hit me that I wasn’t even in the Tamil Nadu one-day team. I told my parents that I didn’t want to play the sport,” he said. “I tried a few other things, not to make a career out of it, but to shift the focus away from cricket. I wasn’t able to handle the fact that I wasn’t good enough to play for my own state.”

He emphasises his parents’ valuable support during this phase. “My dad [TS Mukund, a former cricketer himself], never actually pushed me into anything, contrary to what other people may think. When I told my dad I didn’t want to play the sport he just said ‘fine’. He felt I was old enough to make decisions on my own.”

Getting his mojo back

A club stint in England in 2013 was a timely intervention as it gave him a different perspective on his cricket, having to adjust to a very different environment. He got his mojo back and the additional responsibility of captaincy followed in the 2014-’15 season.

Even though his 2015-’16 first-class numbers (one fifty and an average just under 20) look paltry on paper, he insisted that there was little to tinker with technically, as he was getting into good position in playing the ball. Inputs from his batting coaches, first WV Raman, and then current coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar, have helped in his growth.

“Hrishikesh is really calm and I always go to him when I feel that something is wrong, like my head is falling or my bat is turning. He makes a lot of sense, he is an intelligent man, speaks really well. He can be a bit reserved, but once you speak to him he comes up with a lot of good points.”

Abhinav credited his batting coaches WV Raman and Hrishikesh Kanitkar for his return to form (Image credit: Abhinav Mukund/Facebook)

Being typecast

An often forgotten aspect of Abhinav’s career is his prowess as a limited-overs batsman, with a List A average of 50. Despite this, he has never played a limited-overs match for India and has featured in only three IPL matches. Does it bother him that he has been typecast as purely a long-format player?

“It’s a misconception. Branding people is easy. I’m so used to it. People in Chennai have branded me like that and now people all over the country are doing so. When I score well in the Tamil Nadu Premier League or a domestic one-day game, people say, ‘Oh, Abhinav Mukund does well there too?’. These people probably do not follow those tournaments as much. If they do, they will know. I don’t care about what other people say about me. I scored in the semis and the final of the TNPL. Maybe some IPL teams will pick me up now. You never know.”

The IPL is still a couple of months away, but his immediate aim is finding a place as an opener in the Test XI. Ironically, he may end up competing with his state teammate Murali Vijay for a spot, although it may be a long shot considering Vijay scored two hundreds against England.
Would it create an awkward situation?

“It’s not as competitive as you think it is,” Abhinav said. “I’ll have a chat with him. He’s much senior to me. I’ve never tried to push anyone out. I think I’ve been minding my own business and focusing on what I can do best to get back into the team. That I’m back after five years is itself an occasion. I’m going to cherish this moment.”