Abhimanyu Easwaran: I’ve grown to understand that mental preparation is as important as physical preparation

‘’My mom and my sister didn’t know much about cricket when I started out, now they know every single detail. You can ask them about any cricketer and they’ll have all the answers. They follow the game very diligently now,’’ Abhimanyu Easwaran recounts with a chuckle. Their acquired interest is a result of his flourishing career.

Having made his first-class debut in December 2013 for Bengal, where the cricketing pastures were greener than his home state Uttarakhand which only recently earned a BCCI affiliation, Easwaran has come tantalizingly close to an Indian Test cap by scoring 6567 first-class runs in 152 innings at an average of 47.24, with a best of 233.

In an exclusive chat with Guerilla Cricket, Easwaran details his learnings from the time spent in the Indian dressing room, his preparatory process, mental make-up, how he navigates the evolution of Test cricket, the captaincy experience and the dedication of his father in realizing their shared vision.

Being a part of the Test squad that won at Lord’s must’ve been a fond memory? To see up close India’s third victory at the spiritual home of cricket, what kind of an imprint did it leave on you?

Yeah, I think that’s one of the best moments I’ve had on a cricket field even though I wasn’t part of the XI. I feel every cricketer dreams of being part of a Test match or any game at Lord’s. It’s a special place with so much history. I think it’s a big deal for any player, not just me because I was there in the team for the first time, but every single player in the squad felt that it was a really good win. It was incredible – the energy, the spirit on the field was amazing. I mean it’s a really special place to be defeating England on their home turf.

I remember watching every single ball from the dressing room and the atmosphere at Lord’s. Those members sitting, crowds going berserk, it was really intense and exciting. In that Test match I could see the character shown by a lot of senior players in our team. The partnership between Bumrah and Shami bhai, that was something special because up until that point there weren’t too many contributions from the tail. To watch them put up a fight, the way Virat bhai led and the fact that we were able to get them all out inside 60 overs was great.

That experience left a big impression on me. It showed me what we can achieve as a team, how we can achieve as a team and it feels great to be part of such an important game in Indian history.

I remember a funny thing from that game. I had to substitute for a fast bowler in the field, I was fielding at square leg and the first ball that I fielded in a Test match I slipped while collecting it. I remember one of the coaches saying that that is some way to show that a new player is on the block.

Few enriching conversations you can recall from your time around the Indian setup?

I had a lot of interactions with senior players, coaches and if I had to pick one.. on the tour of England I remember having a really good conversation with Cheteshwar Pujara. I went for dinner with him and we had a long chat about how he prepares for a game, what are the things he does before going on an overseas tour, what are the things I can do to get better at the level I am and just to prepare for international level.

As a top-order player myself, getting to know all this from someone who has done so well at international cricket, getting to know how he thinks and what are the sort of plans he makes for a Test series was great and then to see him do that in a Test match and perform was even better. I could relate to the chat we had a couple of days back and to watch him implement those things in a game was amazing.

We’ve seen the impact of IPL in making players ready for the big stage. Similarly, how important are A tours in ensuring a smooth transition to the international level?

IPL is crucial in getting used to the big stage because the pressure is high, the world is watching you, you’ve got all the international cricketers, the best cricketers in the world playing as it’s the biggest league in the world. It gives you a lot of exposure and gives you an opportunity to perform under high pressure. The grounds are jampacked, so it gives you a lot of belief when you perform under those conditions.

I believe A tours are equally important. It is the one last step you take before entering an international team. Actually, there is very less room for error as the stakes are pretty high and it gives you a taste of overseas conditions and the playing styles of international cricket because you are playing in different countries, you are getting used to those conditions – the pitches, the climates. There are games where you are playing against a lot of international bowlers who’ve probably come back from an injury or are preparing for a Test match because there are a lot of bowlers who only play Test cricket.

I remember playing against Marco Jansen in the last South Africa series and then he picked up about 19-20 wickets (19) in the Test series. Getting runs against him and then seeing him perform against the Indian team was a big boost because I felt I was playing against one of the best bowlers in the world at that point.

Personally, I think it’s (A tours) taught me a lot about handling pressure, adapting to the conditions and being tactically ahead. We don’t get a lot of time to prepare once we set foot in the host country so it’s just about getting used to the conditions. If you’ve prepared beforehand that gives you an edge and keeps you a little ahead of the opponent because we’re playing in away conditions. It’s a great exposure and as a player, you gain confidence, get to learn a lot about the game and especially about yourselves.

You are very focused and methodical by nature. You believe in being the best prepared player ahead of any match. How and with whom do you brainstorm what it will take to ace the conditions?

I have my personal coach Mr. Apurva Desai. I’ve been working with him for a very long time. It’s difficult to meet him because he’s coaching at the National Cricket Academy right now. So before every tournament or series, we get on a call and we discuss the conditions and from his experience he shares a few things and I try and make a game-plan for those conditions.

Like, for example, we’re going to South Africa. We’re playing at three venues but the wickets are pretty similar, could be a little here and there but not too much of a difference. I know there’s extra bounce as compared to the Indian conditions so I’ll focus more on that. I have my ways, I do a few drills just to try and simulate those conditions in India. As close as I can get to those conditions. That’s what I look for and then just formulating a game-plan as to what are my scoring areas and how I can go about things.

But again when you’re playing first-class cricket, you could be playing one game at home, at Eden Gardens, next you’re playing on a turning track somewhere in the south. Teams in domestic cricket carry video analysts with them so we sit down and watch how their bowlers have bowled in recent times, so that gives a fair idea about how I can score against them. It’s just about being slightly ahead of the opponents. I think it is the preparation before a tournament starts that counts because once you enter a tournament it’s more about tactical planning about the way you’re going to score in that particular game.

Easwaran averages 47.27 across 34 innings as an opener for India A, with six centuries.

What are your takeaways from playing in the Dhaka Premier League? I presume the experience must’ve come in handy when you scored consecutive hundreds for India A on the tour to Bangladesh?

Yeah, it certainly did because I’d played in those conditions a lot. I played three seasons in the Dhaka Premier League, so the conditions were known to me. It wasn’t like I was playing in alien conditions. I’d played against a lot of bowlers I was up against in those A games. I played for Prime Bank, and there were a few teammates of mine who I came up against in the A games so I knew what sort of gameplans they had. It was a great learning experience playing in the DPL which helped me a lot in the A games and getting runs there was pretty special because that was the first tour for me as the captain of the India A team. To win that series and get two hundreds in two innings was special.

Coming through the ranks you’ve always been known as a prolific run-getter who has an impressive conversion rate and churns out daddy hundreds. How did you manage to avoid complacency and develop the hunger for big scores growing up?

I feel mental preparation is the key. It is as important as the physical preparation. There were times when I was young when I felt physical preparation was key – hitting a lot of balls – that I still do but ever since mental preparation has come into play for me it’s made a big difference. I’ve worked on my mindset, just staying calm and just being able to adapt to that situation. Just staying in the present, as you call it.

I don’t really set too many personal goals in terms of runs, but for me it’s about how I go about every innings. I have a set game plan, which will obviously change if the wicket behaves differently or the opponents plan differently for me but just to have a basic game plan in the first place is essential. To prepare for a specific condition and then go out there and perform gives me a lot of happiness. So does winning a game for my team. If I can do that, it keeps me very hungry.

Before every match, I spend a lot of time analysing the conditions and the opposition bowlers, history about how the pitch has been there, and the recent scores on that ground. I also discuss my batting with my coach Mr. Desai and we chalk out a few points as to what I can try in this game, what are the things that might come in handy in making the difference between the two sides. When you go on the field, you take a lot of on-field decisions. Staying calm, backing yourself to make those decisions in that phase and just going for it gives me a lot of confidence and I back myself in doing that.

Am I right in saying the skill difference narrows once you reach top-flight cricket and it’s more about the mental one-upmanship – picking cues, application, pressure handling and execution?

Yeah, correct. Once you reach a certain level there will be a few special players. That is bound to happen. I feel like there’s nobody like an AB de Villiers who has played international cricket, but most players are pretty close skill-wise. It is just about who handles pressure better, who can adjust to the conditions better. Those are the things which come into play and I feel with experience you get to know about yourself and then you understand that this is what I have, and this is what I need to do.

You make a plan and then you back yourself, it comes off sometimes and it doesn’t come off sometimes. But it’s about repeating that process again and again and believing in yourself. Obviously you have to work hard in the nets, because that’s where the belief comes from but just to go on the field and take a decision and back yourself, that is really important because that comes in handy when you’re under pressure. Belief in yourself is key.

Jogging down the memory lane, can you recall some of the innings where you felt you had a plan in your mind and you applied it to perfection during the innings and got the desired result?

There is one special innings that I’d like to mention. I don’t know if too many people apart from Bengal followers know about it. We were playing on a challenging pitch, a turning track, against Odisha at home. They had decent fast bowlers like Basant Mohanty so we prepared a turning track. It was a pretty low-scoring game which finished in a day and a half. I scored 88 in the first innings and 39 in the second. We scored 140 in the first innings and 130 in the second. I was announced the man of the match.

That was a game which changed a lot of things for me because at that point, I used to take my time, get used to the conditions and slowly build an innings but I knew that if on that wicket I was not proactive I will not get runs. So I played a few shots which nobody thought I would, used my feet against fast bowlers and played a lot of sweeps and reverse sweeps. All of that happened pretty quickly because in a game that finishes in a day and a half things move fast. Being proactive in a first-class game, that was something new to me and since that innings, I’ve played a lot of knocks like that. That one innings changed a lot of things for me.

I like how the conversation is rolling because my next question is along those lines. Given the kind of evolution Test cricket is going through where everybody is expected to push the game forward and not just play possum, have you made changes to your repertoire of strokes and your approach? What kind of mental and technical tweaks have you made to keep up with the times?

Yes, the game is progressing. This is what life is. It is very dynamic and things will keep changing. At one point in Test cricket, scoring about 180 runs in a day was considered pretty good but now the average score should be around 300, I guess. It’s important to adapt to how the game is changing because you have to stay a step ahead. That’s the biggest challenge. I have worked a lot on my shots which have come off well in matches. The intent has changed as well.

Since the last season, there has been a big change in my strike rate, even in the four-day format. I’ve converted those starts into big ones and that I feel has contributed to my team winning a lot of matches. We played the Ranji finals last year and the way we played our cricket was really nice because it was aggressive and at the same time we were pretty clear about how we wanted to go about things.

It is necessary to bring those changes in with time and adjust to the situation because although there will be times when you might have to play out a few overs, probably twenty overs till a draw or to cut down time, having the ability to up the ante in Test cricket has become a norm right now.

In those scenarios does it help to have a batting partner like Yashasvi Jaiswal or Tilak Verma who are inherently flamboyant strokeplayers?

Yeah, it’s pretty nice to have those guys around. These are guys who like to take on the bowlers. You obviously want guys like these in the team. Both of them are left-handers, so there’s a lot of advantage to the right-hander who is batting alongside them. There is a guy who is taking on the bowlers and if he does that even for a session that puts your team a lot ahead in the game. So yeah players like those are required even in Test cricket.

Easwaran notched up consecutive hundreds on India A’s tour of Bangladesh in late 2022. 

In your capacity as captain of Bengal, do you specifically look for players coming through the age groups who have that X-factor to change the complexion of the game in a session or so?

Yeah, we’ve targeted a few players. There are situations when we need somebody to just go out there and express themselves because an hour or two of that person’s batting could change the complexion of the game. We do look at youngsters. As a team we’ve always wanted youngsters to play for Bengal and win games for Bengal, and I think it’s the case with every team these days.

You were made Bengal captain in 2019-20 for the first time. You’d scored 861 runs in 11 innings the previous year. You also got a double-hundred for India A and a century in the Duleep Trophy final. Bengal made the final of the Ranji Trophy that year under your leadership but you only managed to score 258 runs in 17 innings. At any point did you feel that you had to deliver with the bat to command respect from your teammates?

No, that wasn’t the case. Firstly becoming the captain of Bengal was in itself a big honour and added a dimension to my role in the team. Leadership brought different responsibilities not just in terms of scoring runs but also getting the team together and guiding them towards a collective goal which we set as a team. My focus was on the team strategy not just on individual performances, and I’ve always been a team man. If my team wins a game that is more important to me rather than me scoring big runs and my team losing. That probably will be a bad day for me.

So it’s important for me to prioritise the team’s needs and strategies, and that’s what I did. I believe respect from teammates will come from the way you lead both on and off the field, not just by the amount of runs. Runs are something which will happen at a point of time, and which won’t. Respect comes from how you lead a team. Personal performance is obviously important but just leading by example in terms of your attitude, work ethic, and commitment is more crucial.

That season was a big learning curve for me as a leader because I’d to find the right balance between my captaincy and my personal performances, which was pretty challenging. I’d led teams at the junior levels but I felt this was a new experience for me and it was a very valuable experience which helped me grow as a player and a leader. In the coming year when I led I had a lot more clarity and I gave better results to the team. I felt more confident and that improved me as a player.

You don’t like being typecasted as a red-ball batter. You have expressed a desire to play in the IPL. What goes into getting your white-ball game up to scratch?

I’ve worked a lot on my white-ball game in the past few years. I’ve done decently in this year’s Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament. I was pretty disappointed at losing the pre-quarter finals because I felt we had the team which could go on to win the cup. I prepped a lot for the T20s and Vijay Hazare Trophy. I worked on new shots, how I am going to change my mindset, looking at what my team needs me to do. We were lucky to be playing on really good tracks this year in Mohali so just to be able to contribute to my team in winning games was pretty special.

Domestic seasons are long, travel-intensive and particularly hectic for you given the India A commitments. There was a phase where you were suffering lapses of concentration after breaks. What is your mantra to keep mental and physical fatigue at bay?

I mean it all depends on my fitness, what I do during the season or before the season because fitness plays a big role in long tournaments like the ones in India’s domestic circuit. I play for the India A team as well, so I hardly get a break. Fitness wise, I do a lot of strength training and cardio training. I have my nutritionist so I focus on my diet. Just to be in a good space mentally, I read books, something I’ve started to do recently. I watch a lot of movies. I talk a lot to my family which just relaxes me mentally.

Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have been dropped from the Test team while youngsters like Yashasvi Jaiswal and Ishan Kishan have been fastracked. Players on the other side of 30 in the domestic arena are mostly neglected or rarely given a chance no matter how good their performances are, Jalaj Saxena, Jaydev Unadkat or Sheldon Jackson to name a few. You are approaching 30 yourself, so do you ever feel like it’s now or never as far as an India debut is concerned? 

No, I don’t think so because selection is not in my hands. For me it’s just about staying fit and focused and looking to improve my game every single day. Be it a practice session, a gym session or a conditioning session, I try and push myself and become a better player. I believe as long as I’m performing and contributing to my team, as long as I’m winning games for my team age won’t really matter. I’m pretty fit at the moment and committed towards my game and my body. Selection is something which is not in my control. I will not let go of my dream of playing for India. Age is not a determining factor, I feel.

Mayank Agarwal recently confessed that he’d become too desperate for an India cap and the more he tried to block out the noise the more it grew. You’ve come quite close to your dream of representing India on a couple of occasions. Has that frustration of not being able to make it to the team sheet gotten to you sometimes?

Hmm..yeah. I try and keep it simple. There will be times when you think about selection, but again that is something not in your hands. You need to convince yourself that you can only work on the controllables. I follow a very simple mindset which is ‘never give up’. As long as I’m sticking by it, I think I’ll be okay.

It’s difficult to deal with not getting picked because there are a lot of players, there is a lot of competition but if I can bring my focus back on my performances and how I can get better, that will obviously make my dream come true, which is playing for the country. I’ve stayed very optimistic and I just focus on the bigger picture. It’s important to believe in your abilities and enjoy the journey. I follow Kobe Bryant a lot. I listen to his interviews. He taught me that enjoying the journey is more important than getting to the destination. If that has to happen it will, but if you can enjoy the journey that is key to your happiness.

I mean frustration is never going to help you, that is always going to bring negativity which is something you don’t want. You want to focus your energy into something positive and my approach has been to keep focusing on my game, every small aspect of it. Even if I can get 1% better in a season, that helps. I just want to improve and get better at every step and win as many games as I can for whatever team I play.

Your Dad has been your biggest supporter and your harshest critic. Expand on his role in your cricketing journey, please.

I think today wherever I am I am because of my father and my family’s belief and support. I left home at the age of 10. My father was the one who believed in me at that age. He has been with me through the highs and lows. He has constantly motivated me to get better.

He’s been my harshest critic. He won’t hesitate to point out areas where there is scope for improvement. He criticizes at times, but his aim is to always help me grow. I think the balance of support and criticism has been very crucial. It’s helped me a lot in improving my game, and I really appreciate his straightforward approach because you don’t get too many people like that who’ll just come up and tell you what’s wrong and what they feel is going on. That’s helped me develop a very thick skin and be a little more analytical about my game.

He has seen me play cricket since the time I first held a cricket bat and till now he knows about every single thing I’m working on. We discuss a lot of cricket on a daily basis as to what I’m planning, even what I’m working on in the off-season. He knows what my thought process is and he can just sense things about my game, be it off the field or on the field. I think he’s been a great support and I’m lucky to have a father and a family like this. My mom and sister are my support system and I’m grateful for that.

Broadcast Schedule

WT20 2024
AUS v NAM, North Sound (WLW)
12th June
Start time: 1:30 am BST
USA v IND, New York
12th June
Start time: 3:30 pm BST
WI v NZ, Tarouba, (WLW)
13th June
Start time: 1:30 am BST

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