If runs and wickets at the domestic level are the criteria for national selection, Abhishek Nayar should have played a lot more than just three One-Day Internationals. The 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season has seen him score seven fifties and three hundreds so far for Mumbai, a significant contribution in Mumbai’s march to the semifinals. With India scheduled to play four more Tests at home against Australia in February-March, Nayar's incredible run of scores and wickets ought to come up for discussion. In this chat with Wisden India, Nayar spoke about his routine, his mindset and what brings out the best in him, among other things. Excerpts:
Nine seasons of first-class cricket for Mumbai. How has your role within the team changed over the years?
When I started off in 2005, there were a lot of senior players like Nilesh Kulkarni, Amol Muzumdar and Paras Mhambrey, so for youngsters like me, firstly it was about making a place for ourselves in the team. I was dropped after just three games. I had to force my way back into the team next season, but since then, it has been good journey. When I returned to the Mumbai dressing room, I was determined not to go out of it anytime soon. That was my first goal. From there things just kept getting better. We went on to win the title that season (2006-07) and there has been no looking back.
So even as juniors, you had responsibility ingrained right from the beginning?
After the first few seasons, Muzumdar wasn't a part of the team, he left to play elsewhere. We still had a few seniors like Wasim Jaffer. The batch that graduated from the Under-19 and Under-22 levels then automatically became the senior batch. There was Sahil Kukreja, Rohit Sharma, me, so the responsibility automatically shifted to us and it was important for us to live up to that, which in itself was a big motivation. I don't think as youngsters trying to make a mark in the team, we could have asked for anything better in terms of team atmosphere, because it was and is a wonderful place to learn and keep getting better. As for responsibility, I've always enjoyed it and I've strived to work hard in pressure situations.
Seven fifties and three hundreds this season, apart from 16 wickets. Do you think you're at the peak of your career?
I'd love to believe I'm at my peak. The last couple of years have been really good personally. Last season, I got two hundreds and three fifties, but fractured my thumb in the middle of the season, which meant I had to miss three important games. I got back in the semifinals, but wasn't 100% fit. I also had a good one-day and T20 season for Mumbai. I didn't do too well in the IPL, but the opportunities were also limited. I feel I've matured a lot as a cricketer, and being a senior player demands that. This year, things have been really good too. I've put in a lot of work during the off-season and that is paying off now. I don't think anything has changed in terms of the way I prepare. I've always valued my wicket, and I do so even more now.
You've done all that is asked of a cricketer to merit selection, yet you haven't had the opportunities at the highest level. Does India selection ever cross your mind?
To be honest, when I started off this season, I made a conscious effort to stop worrying about selection because that is not something I have control over. The goal is and always will be to play for India. My target was to just enjoy my cricket and give my best in every game. I wanted to improve as a cricketer. I've always felt as the season goes along, you tend to relax a bit. I didn't want to do that and I haven't. I'm trying to keep myself as pumped up as I can every game and be honest with myself, just trying to make sure I'm doing well regardless of what the outcome is. Obviously if I do these things right, selection should take care of itself.
You were dropped after playing just three ODIs in 2009, that must have hurt?
I was really disappointed because I didn't get an opportunity to bat in the first two games, and when I did against the West Indies in our final league game of the Champions Trophy, there were hardly a few runs left for victory and I was unbeaten on zero. But I believe something bigger is in store, perhaps a comeback too. That is what keeps me going, because if and when that chance comes, I want to be ready physically and mentally. On hindsight, I think I wasn't mentally ready at that time, so this time around I'm just focusing on the process and not anything for granted.
Who helped you come through this phase?
I haven't opened up about my personal feelings to many people, but one person who has been of immense help is Anand Chulani, a performance expert. I also worked with him when he was with Kings XI Punjab last year. He has made me realise the important things, given me a much broader perspective, with selection occupying a tiny little spot at the bottom.
What is your preparation like before and during a game? And how do you keep living up to your reputation of being the ‘crisis man' for Mumbai?
I have a few routines which I follow irrespective of the opponent, meditation being one of them. I focus a lot of my fitness because that plays a big part in making you what you are, especially if you want to sustain yourself at the top consistently. If your body lets go, it is difficult for your mind to be there, so I make sure I have a check list to tick every time. I don't believe in taking things for granted. I'm not sure if I was but now I've become more appreciative of what I have and I'm just trying to make sure I enjoy the game every time I'm on the field, because you never know when you'll get injured. These unfortunate things keep happening, and there can't be anything worse than being sidelined and then watching someone else take your place.
As for batting in a crisis, right from my early days, I've encountered this 30 for three kind of situation often. It is very easy to come in at 300 for three, you're just building the platform already created. I've always enjoyed the pressure that is associated with walking out to bat when the team is in trouble. It is disheartening when you fail, but that has also taught me a lot of lessons. But when you come out of the situation and bail the team out, the sense of satisfaction is something that can't be expressed.
Your batting stance is very unique. Didn't any of your coaches try to correct you?
(Laughs) It is a very interesting story, actually. When I started off, it was worse than what it is today. It was a wider version of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, obviously not that square on, so you can imagine how it would have been. I've always liked to be unique and I've liked to do things differently. When I made my debut, it was different. I tried a different stance just so that I didn't look stupid. But once I figured out this is what suits me, I stuck to it because I didn't want to mess around and do things differently just to please people. A lot of people came up and told me this is not the way it is done, but deep down it is about what suits you and how you can get better and I felt this was the best way forward. Obviously, when I bat in the four-day games, it is a little different and when I'm batting in the one-dayers, the approach is different. I'm very flexible in what I do, I'm not rigid. In that aspect, I've worked a lot with Pravin Amre. I blindly trust his inputs, I try and get better.
Within the Mumbai set-up, what is the role seniors like Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan have played over the years, especially in the grooming of youngsters?
Sachin and Zak are very approachable. So no one has felt weird or intimidated being around them. Yes, we've felt privileged, which is a good feeling to have. I don't think anyone restricts himself when they're around, we still crack jokes, they crack jokes and we all have a good laugh about it. Sachin talks to all members of the team, doesn't matter if you're a senior or junior. The dressing room is the best place to be in, Ajit (Agarkar, the captain) has ensured that is how the dressing room should always be.
You share a good friendship with Rohit Sharma, who is going through a slump. At a personal level, does cricket ever come up during your discussions?
Yes, we're good mates. We've talked a lot about fitness of late. The only time I remember us discussing technique is when he had a rough time in Sri Lanka (July 2012), where he kept getting out the same way. Fitness has been our common goal and in the past one year, I think everyone has observed Rohit change the manner in which he trains. He is a lot fitter now and that has come about because of a lot of hard work.
The No. 6 spot in the Indian Test team is still up for grabs. After the season you've had, do you fancy your chances?
I hope that is the case. I think I was very close to being picked when I scored a 100 for India A against South Africa in a tour game when they were here two years back. If it is meant to happen, it will. I believe in destiny, and I'm a firm believer that what's written for you will happen. I'm just trying to do what I can. Whether I'm the perfect guy for No. 6 or not will only be known if I get an opportunity, but I've done what I can do and that is to perform. In the end, it is up to the selectors.