In June 2019, soon after a mediocre IPL campaign with Kings XI Punjab, Mandeep Singh dialled R Ashwin's number, seeking opportunities to play competitive cricket instead of spending the summer idling away in Patiala. He was specifically looking to play long-form matches to prepare for the first-class season after Vikram Rathour, India's current batting coach who was Mandeep's mentor, had identified a number of issues to work on, like getting the habit of scoring hundreds back.
Ashwin put Mandeep in touch with Take Solutions, the team he represents in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association League, and Mandeep was soon roped in as a professional for Swaraj, the company's second XI. It's a stint he looks back at with fondness as he sits on top of the Ranji Trophy run-scorers' chart for 2019-20 (non-Plate), with Punjab placed third in Groups A and B combined at the halfway mark of the season.
"Because of T20s, I tried to become a different player and lost my technique, I have to accept that," Mandeep tells ESPNcricinfo. "I tried to make too many changes. Look, everyone wants to play in the IPL, so maybe I got caught into that, but I'm not one to shy away from my faults. In trying to change things, I felt I lost my base. So the idea was to get into an unfamiliar environment and strengthen it to get better."
It's not as though Mandeep had a poor 2018-19 Ranji season. He made 602 runs at an average of 54.72 - "not enough with the kind of competition we have". What the scorecards don't tell you is that the 90 he made against Delhi at the Feroz Shah Kotla was on a rank turner where only one other batsman made a half-century, and the counter-attacking 89 against Kerala was on a greentop in Mohali. These two innings apart, there were several other occasions when he failed to kick on after getting set.
"If I had to play, I had to make an impact, score runs like Mayank Agarwal did to get into the Indian team. While the India dream is still there, I no longer think about it"
Seeking to get out of this habit was top of his mind when he reached Chennai.
Mandeep's training involved multiple stints at the nets daily in the heat and humidity. He played on red-soil pitches, dustbowls, seaming tracks, you name it. Then came the matches, and he made three hundreds in five outings, and left Chennai richer for the experience.
"Vikram paaji felt me simply playing white-ball cricket to build towards a red-ball season would be putting in quantity over quality," Mandeep says. "He felt certain habits that I can get away with in white-ball cricket will not serve me well in the long format. It was during one of our discussions that he put forward the prospect of me trying to play elsewhere, out of my comfort zone, just to challenge myself.
"I worked on my defensive technique. I used to jab at deliveries, throw my hands at wide deliveries. So the focus was to tighten my game, play with my head down, right on top of the ball, learn to use my feet better against spinners on dry turners, work on leaving the ball, trying to get on top of the bounce while pulling - basically a whole lot of things. Not being in the scheme of things for India A was largely one of the reasons why I needed to find an avenue to score runs instead of wasting a summer."
Mandeep's most recent outing - last week - showed how the Chennai stint had helped. His fighting unbeaten 71 was the highlight for Punjab in an otherwise poor game, which they lost after having Kerala at 89 for 6 on the opening morning. On a raging turner, Jalaj Saxena ran through Punjab with 7 for 51 as Kerala won by 21 runs. Yet, for Mandeep, the game has become a personal favourite, because he hadn't felt more challenged in recent times than in the first innings there.
"Sometimes knocks like those give you more satisfaction than any hundred," he says. "But we only look at hundreds when we look at stats. It's really hard to quantify such knocks, you need to look beyond the scorecards. Hopefully my runs will be noticed. I think for me, it's just maybe I'm enjoying my cricket more than ever before, because when you're told you can't play cricket again, you learn to take each day as it comes and derive happiness from small things that matter."
Being told he wouldn't play cricket again is a reference to 2017, when he was diagnosed with a serious back problem. He was part of India's T20I squad that played England early in the year, but didn't get a chance. While he felt some pain, he initially didn't bother too much.
"I was in national contention, so when you're in that situation, you tend to brush aside small problems, that is what I did," he says. "But it got to a stage soon [just before the IPL finished] where I struggled to sleep, even turn from one side to another. Even walking would give me back pain.
"We did an MRI and they told me there was nerve damage and my disc has bulged. They said the condition was a disc prolapse. Sometimes, the pain would spread to my legs. I flew to London and had a surgery, and I was out of action for eight months."
When he returned, he was diagnosed with a groin condition. "All in all, I lost a good 18 months of cricket. Honestly, it's only now that I feel my rhythm is coming back," he says. "I'm playing the way I used to. So when you face these kinds of situations where you're told you can't play, your career could be over, you don't think of an India comeback. You learn to walk and take slow steps first.
"As (Punjab) captain, I'm trying to set the right example. Communicating clearly with the team, like say someone isn't part of the XI, I talk to them in advance. How you can contribute to the team even if you're not in the XI, the intensity you have on the field"
"That was the lowest point for me. Before the injury, I was in the Indian team. I was on a high. When I came back, I wasn't picked for India A, Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy. All I knew is I didn't want to garner any sympathy. If I had to play, I had to make an impact, score runs like Mayank Agarwal did to get into the Indian team. While the India dream is still there, I no longer think about it. At the moment, the focus is to do well for Punjab and win the Ranji Trophy."
Punjab haven't come close to the semi-finals since 2012-13, when they lost to Saurashtra in the final-four game in Rajkot. Then, Mandeep's dismissal on the final day sparked an incredible collapse as Punjab lost eight wickets in a session. Mandeep says he shook off the frustration and hurt by punishing himself. He ran 15 kilometres back to the team hotel from the SCA Stadium, on the outskirts of Rajkot. That memory brings a chuckle now, but Mandeep still remembers the shot he played to get out, and is determined break the Ranji jinx.
"How far we've come as a team makes me happy," he says. "Shubman Gill is a tagda (solid) player, Abhishek Sharma is as talented as they come. We've got myself, Gurkeerat Singh, Sandeep Sharma and Siddarth Kaul - the senior players. Most of the others are either into the first or second season. Anmolpreet Singh is in the India A mix. Young Anmol Malhotra has made vital contributions under pressure so far this season, so the youngsters are grabbing their chances slowly.
"As captain, I'm trying to set the right example. Communicating clearly with the team, like say someone isn't part of the XI, I talk to them in advance. How you can contribute to the team even if you're not in the XI, the intensity you have on the field. Our coach Munish Bali has helped greatly on that front. He has taken the load off me.
"We also have Yuvi paaji [Yuvraj Singh] interacting with the team. On a couple of occasions, he flew down from Mumbai and came to our nets. He has taken special interest in Abhishek Sharma, to nurture him and ensure he becomes a superb allrounder. He is always a call away And these boys, when they hear words from a great player like him, automatically they get a lift. As of now, we are on the right track, hopefully we can stay there till the knockouts and beyond."
If that happens, and if he keeps scoring a lot of runs, Mandeep might have turned a corner in what has been an up-and-down ride over the years for a very talented batsman.