Ahead of the 2019-20 season, which has officially begun with the Duleep Trophy, Ankit Bawne texted a friend for advice. That friend was Mayank Agarwal, who was to link up with India's other Test specialists in Mumbai before flying out to the West Indies.
Bawne's 2018-19 season was poor. He was low on confidence and needed a helping hand. He had seen first-hand, in 2017-18, how Agarwal turned his form around after a pair in his first match of the season. Against a Maharashtra side captained by Bawne, Agarwal slammed a triple-century. As frustrating as it was to watch from the infield, Bawne says the innings taught him "life lessons".
"That innings told you everything about Mayank the person, his methods, his approach, his attitude and hard work," Bawne says. "I just asked him what went through his mind as he took strike, having made a pair in the previous game. And then the pressure he was under, and how he turned the season and maybe even his career around."
It's no throwaway line. Agarwal followed up that innings of 304* with scores of 176, 23, 90, 133*, 173 and 134 on his way to ending the season atop the Ranji Trophy charts with 1160 runs at 105.45. The runs kept coming, across formats, and propelled Agarwal towards international selection, with his Test debut arriving at the MCG on Boxing Day last year.
Agarwal's reply to Bawne's text was, to begin with, this simple message: "Give yourself a chance to make friends with the pitch, and everything will follow."
Bawne chuckles as he remembers that chat. "He made it sound so easy. I asked him again, 'man, how did you do it?' And then he told me seriously: 'Just because you get a 100 or 200 in one innings, you don't start the next innings on the same score. You're still zero not out. Once you get a start, then the confidence of all those runs you've made kicks in. Try getting into that zone.'
"He's also an inspiration because he got into the Test team at 28. It shows if you perform, age is no bar. I'm 26, I should be on top of my game. I have no reason to believe I can't make it. So as a batsman, he has inspired me a lot. He's an example of how the domestic grind can reward you and take you places. You just have to be patient, honest with yourself, and keep that passion and hunger."
In his first full outing after that phone call, Bawne was in that zone, along the way carving a superb century in the Duleep Trophy, an unbeaten 254-ball 121 that nearly helped India Blue secure a first-innings lead against India Red in Alur. It was an innings where Bawne shelved his ego and the big shots early on, overcame a bouncer barrage, ignored all the chirping around him, batted maturely with the lower order, and, once in his zone, nonchalantly picked off the gaps in the deep even with six men patrolling the boundaries.
Bawne has faced numerous challenges in a first-class career that has already spanned more than a decade. He has grown from being a brash teenager who captained the junior India team until an age-related controversy forced him out of contention for the Under-19 World Cup. He is admittedly a calmer version of his previous self, and has grown more consistent, with more focus and direction in his cricket and life in general. He has grown into a middle-order linchpin at Maharashtra, known for his solid technique and calming influence on the dressing room.
His record is impressive; his hundred for India Blue was the 18th of his first-class career, and he has an average of over 50 in the format, from 92 matches. But he hasn't hit the peaks of some of his contemporaries. He has never had a 1000-run Ranji season - his most productive one remains 2013-14, when he made 731 runs to help Maharashtra reach the final.
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"Who wouldn't love to get 1000?" Bawne asks. "As a batsman, I do realise at No. 5, chances to make big hundreds may not always come. So I can't be obsessed about 1000 all the time. I have to be realistic. Mostly, it's the top three who get those kind of runs, but having said that, consistency is what I'm after. The hard work in the off-season pays off. Sometimes, as an individual, you don't get time to think and reflect, you're always on the move. But I think about my game, I know this is what I've been after, and nothing comes easy."
Numbers don't often say how a fighting 75 in Lahli can sometimes be worth as much as a 200 not out in Rajkot or Hyderabad. If you look at the scorecard from his innings on Sunday, it won't tell you about the kind of command he had over the bowlers, how he read their minds, and how nothing - not even India Blue losing five wickets for 15 runs - affected his concentration.
Bawne made his first-class debut as a 15-year old, in 2007, and played his first game for India A only a decade later, in 2017. Since then, he has been in or around the A team, and has even captained it, but hasn't quite nailed down a spot. Even so, when he bats, he always looks self-assured.
"What I've learnt over time is the need to change my game to different wickets," he says. "Early in my career, it was just one way, one tempo. On different surfaces, the awareness to temper your game is what defines you as a batsman. This is what I've learnt from [India A coach] Rahul Dravid. Over time, that understanding has helped me become a better batsman. Apart from that, I've also had to consciously work on my fitness, which has helped me in batting long periods."
Bawne has tried his hand at boxing, which he says has improved his reflexes, both while batting and fielding in the slips. He's also tried different kinds of cardio exercise. Here too, he fielded for 124 overs and then batted for a majority of his team's 83.2 overs.
"It has given me focus, the push to run those extra singles and twos, to hold an end up and fight through pain," Bawne says. "In general, fitness work has been a major contributing factor to my game. Now I feel I'm better equipped, personally and also as a batsman. I've figured out my routines, what works for me and what doesn't.
"If I'm out to a good ball, I'll accept that. But I don't want to be out because I'm tired or have played a tired shot at the end of a long day because I'm not fit or don't have the strength. In fact being fit has helped me pocket those extra runs at the end when everyone else is tired."
While he's been around the domestic circuit for 12 years, it's only since 2017 that he has believed he can graduate to the next level. The belief came during a four-day game against New Zealand A in Vijayawada, where Matt Henry and Lockie Ferguson were bowling at their quickest. Bawne copped blows to the body, survived, and made an unbeaten 162.
"Nothing prepares you to face 150 clicks until you have actually faced it," he says. "You don't face it in Ranji Trophy. It's like they're coming at your throat. Your body, your mind, your instincts - you can so easily freeze. That's when instincts take over. That knock injected belief, because those guys were seriously quick and the pitch was doing something. That felt like magic, that's the moment I realised maybe I can play for India and get Test hundreds.
"You need one or two games like that to get the confidence that you belong to the next level. Since that my mindset has been different. I know I can play, I can score. As a batsman, if I can be in that zone, that kind of high when I'm batting, I know I will be in a very good space. Like I was today, which was among my better knocks in recent times since it came against three quality fast bowlers - Varun Aaron, Avesh Khan and Jaydev Unakat."