While watching South Zone train ahead of their Duleep Trophy final, one can overlook the presence of Abhinav Mukund because of his teammates. In the same frame at the Kotla are Dinesh Karthik and Robin Uthappa, both wicketkeeper batsmen and attractive stroke-makers, who are regulars in their respective IPL teams.
The latter is the talking point, ahead of the final to be played from Wednesday, following his patient 120 off 196 balls in the semifinal against East Zone. Uthappa, opening the innings, batted for 320 minutes at the Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium in Lahli, where conditions are more challenging than most cricket venues in the country. Mukund had built his reputation as a dependable opening batsman by producing similar knocks consistently.
Mukund watched the semifinal at Lahli from the sidelines as the in-form Lokesh Rahul combined with Uthappa at the top. During two underwhelming Ranji Trophy seasons, Mukund managed to stay relevant with a marathon 702 minute 240 versus Saurashtra in November but a total of 475 runs in 2013-14 and 320 in the previous season resulted in the opener falling off the selectors’s radar.
Four seasons ago, Mukund was drafted into the Test squad when Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir missed the tour to the West Indies following injuries. He played five Tests, all abroad — in the Caribbean and England — opened with three different partners and looked the part when he followed up his 48 at Bridgetown with 62 at Roseau and 49 at Lord’s. Subsequently, he had to make way for the return of the Sehwag-Gambhir combination and the second Test at Trent Bridge was to be his last.
Earlier this year, Mukund was at Nottingham when India were touring England but he was just dropping in to catch up with friends. Disappointed at being dropped from the Tamil Nadu one-day team and keen to rediscover his touch in first-class cricket, Mukund turned professional for the first time in his career and turned out for Loughborough Town Cricket Club, a team in the Leicestershire Premier League.
“I wanted to look at my career from a different point of view and made a fresh start by playing in England. I wanted to clear my mind and meet new people, get new ideas and be in a positive frame of mind at the start of season I never doubted my ability, but I just wanted some time off and hence went to a different place. It was about facing a different kind of ball and playing in different weather conditions than what I would have faced in Chennai.”
The 24-year-old scored two centuries and three fifties and registered an average in the mid fifties. “The benefits of playing in England showed. I have had a good pre-season so far. I was man of the tournament in the Buchi Babu Invitational Tournament and in the Chennai league (limited overs) where I got 400-odd runs in four games. Hopefully I will get to play in the final (Duleep Trophy),” Mukund adds.
With India searching for the third opener in Tests, there is hope of a comeback for the likes of Mukund if the runs start to flow again. “When I made my Test debut, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. I was a young rash kid and just went out and batted and it worked because of whatever I had practiced previously. I played a rash shot at Lord’s. I faced the challenge of an Indian batsman playing abroad in England. I am still 24 and it is always a matter of just one good Ranji Trophy season and you are back in the reckoning. You never know what might happen in a year.”
Though over the last two domestic seasons Mukund failed to cash in, his passion for the game didn’t dwindle. “I kept watching cricket on television. There are some players who don’t watch cricket when they are not playing the game. But I can give you the latest scores from the Bangladesh versus Zimbabwe Test match. I watch India play and while other opening batsmen have succeeded, it does not worry me that I am not part of the Test squad. If the selectors think you are not good enough you need to work hard. From this low there is only one way to go and that is up. Things can only get better.”