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India A tour of Australia more important than debut series: Mandeep Singh

As Punjab completed their win very early on the final day of their Ranji Trophy clash against Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday (November 8), the players decided to engage in a game of football. They probably needed that after stepping up a gear in the second innings of the game to force a result in their favour.

One of the key contributors to the victory was middle-order batsman Mandeep Singh, who struck a crucial 63 to almost erase the first innings deficit. Mandeep had earlier missed two matches for his side after being named in the One-Day International squad for the five-match New Zealand One-Day International series. Even though he didn't play a game in the series, Mandeep is keen on moving forward to help Punjab progress in the domestic competition.

"I think these things are not in my hand, if I have to be honest," he said to Cricbuzzwhen asked about not getting a game against the visiting New Zealand team. Candid in response, he agreed that he might have gotten a look in had India wrapped up the series earlier. "I kind of expected that I will get one or two chances but the situation was such that we were tied you know 2-2, probably that was the reason I didn't get a game, let's see maybe in the next tour I may get a game, but still I have to keep on performing.

"I really care about my Punjab team. This current batch we have done well in junior cricket so we really want to do well for the senior side as well, so at the moment I'm really focussing on the Ranji Trophy and want to win games for Punjab."

Mandeep's tryst with international cricket came earlier this year in Zimbabwe. He made his debut in the first Twenty20 International in Harare and went on to play all three matches. He also scored his first fifty in international cricket when he smashed an unbeaten 52 in the second game. "Debut was great, dream come true," he said. "Obviously, since childhood I had dreamt about it. So it is the biggest thing that has happened to me till date, can't express my feelings actually."

Personally though, the 24-year-old found the Australian tour with the India A team more challenging. And understandably so, considering the quality of the opposition he faced in the quadrangular series in those challenging conditions. After initially struggling in the tournament, Mandeep managed to deliver on the big stage by scoring 95 in the final which India won. "Australia was amazing, it was very tough for the batters, because first of all the grounds were big and we are not used to those huge grounds over here," said said.

"I think the inner field was very slow, the ball didn't travel, so we really had to run hard all the time and obviously the ball was seaming around. If you see, there aren't many players who have scored runs over there so it was great, last two games I performed well, especially in the finals I did well, so I think it really boosted my confidence, especially playing against Australia, I think that tour was more important than the Zimbabwe tour. It was very competitive."

Playing for India A also has the added incentive of learning under the direct supervision of the legendary former India captain Rahul Dravid. And Mandeep is no exception. Dravid's inputs regarding his mindset a few days before the final helped Mandeep make some mental adjustments which in the end bore fruit. "Rahul bhaitold me that I think a lot, he asked me to relax during games. He thought I get into a too intense mindset during matches. He told me to focus on my net sessions and particularly on the foot work," he recalled.

"His teaching made me understand that in conditions, like we encountered in Australia, decisive footwork is very important. He told me not to worry about not getting runs in the initial few matches. He made me realise that I think a lot about my technique and there's not much wrong with it. Zyada practice mat kar, relax kar. (Don't practice too much, just relax). And that really helped me, in the last four-five days I didn't practice much, I was keeping it very relaxed and was very happy."

But it wasn't only Dravid who has managed to inspire Mandeep in recent times. As the conversation switched towards the Indian Premier League, where he first came into the limelight in 2012 while playing for Kings XI Punjab, the right-hander is full of praise for his current skipper Virat Kohli, whom he idolises. The fact that he can idolise someone who is just three years older than him says a lot about Kohli's work ethic. "After Sachin Tendulkar, I idolise him," he exclaimed. "Especially the way he commits himself. That's the major thing and then the small small things he takes care of, sleep, diet, training, the way he trains.

"I told myself that if I have to be there, I have to train like him, so that was very inspiring playing with him and spending time with him."

This year's IPL though proved to be an indifferent one for Mandeep. He didn't get enough opportunities to prove his worth in the start-studded Royal Challengers Bangalore line-up but when he finally had a chance to bat in the top four, luck didn't favour him. He got injured after the toss which forced the team management to bring back KL Rahul, who went on to score an unbeaten half-century. Following that knock, Rahul went through a dream run of form which put him above Mandeep in the pecking order.

The youngster burst into a laughter when reminded of it. "He (Rahul) always thanks me for that," he said. But within a matter of seconds, he reveals how hard the phase was for him as it could have easily been him in Rahul's place grabbing eyeballs. "I think it's part and parcel of a sportsman's career but it was a very hard time honestly because last year I played almost all the games for RCB but this year I didn't get a chance, it was frustrating a bit but I really used that time to work on my fitness."

The fact that he kept emphasizing on fitness probably highlighted how vital it has now become for a cricketer to keep himself fit in order to keep up with the demands of the game. Getting fitter also helped him run better between the wickets in Australia, by his own admission. "I really worked hard with Basu sir and I wanted to push myself and see what I can do. I really pushed myself in the training department and that's what I can do because working hard is in my control, that's what I decided after a few games that I have to keep practising and maybe this is the time I can improve my fitness even more.

"And I think in the finals in Australia, that really helped because I hit only ten (11) boundaries in my 95. The ground was huge, I really ran hard and I think that paid off. I really believe that my fitness is pretty good at the moment."

With several batsmen honing their bowling skills a bit more in recent times in order to add another facet to their game which could in turn help them nail down a spot in the playing XI, Mandeep provides a gentle reminder of his own numbers for his state side with the ball. "I think I have been bowling in the shorter formats for Punjab. If you see my T20 record it is really good, my economy is 5.9 something and it is not like I have been bowling one or two overs, I have been bowling more," he said.

"The thing is, I used to bowl offspin but then Gurkeerat came and I think he is a very good offspinner as well so that's why I thought maybe I will bowl seam up so I think in the shorter formats its really working well for me like when the field is out I have good areas to bowl and it is a little difficult to hit. I used to bowl four overs for Punjab in T20, so lets see what happens.

"Lets see, it has certainly given me an edge (over the rest) in domestic cricket," he signed off with a chuckle.

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