From the shy teenager who couldn’t string two sentences together, to Gujarat’s shining beacon who can’t go two matches without stringing centuries together, it’s been an eventful journey for Panchal. © Priyank Panchal

From the shy teenager who couldn’t string two sentences together, to Gujarat’s shining beacon who can’t go two matches without stringing centuries together, it’s been an eventful journey for Priyank Panchal. © Priyank Panchal

When he was 19 years old, Priyank Panchal used to practice giving interviews at home. His mother would be the one asking questions, Panchal would answer. This was not vanity. It was the opposite.

Painfully shy, Panchal attended personality development classes, and this was part of ‘homework’. “I used to sit at the back, and never be able to talk to people. I couldn’t even talk to the person sitting next to me,” says Panchal, 26 years old now, when recalling those days.

The soft-spoken Gujarat opener is rather more comfortable with the limelight now. He has to be, after 1270 runs in the Ranji Trophy 2016-17, the fourth most ever in the history of the competition. It’s a season where Panchal has scored at least 60 in every match bar the first one. That includes a run of 232, 56*, 314* (Gujarat’s first triple-century), and 113. And he still has the Ranji Trophy final left to try and get past Vijay Bharadwaj (1280 runs), Shreyas Iyer (1321 runs) and VVS Laxman (1415 runs). It is, therefore, a season where Panchal has had to deal with being in the spotlight, the target of interview requests by journalists fairly often.

When they do interview him though, the journalists won’t be the only ones making notes. When it’s done, Panchal will go back to his room and write down all that has happened in the interview. It’s a ritual that also began at 19. He will write in a diary, the paper-and-binding kind. He’s already filled up “about eight or nine” of these in the past seven years.

Panchal, and the Mumbai cricket experience:

“I think Times Shield is one of the best tournaments I’ve ever played. I played only one match for IOC. Ajinkya Rahane is also in IOC but he wasn’t playing that match so I got a chance. It was in the Police Gymkhana ground in Mumbai. I scored about 60-odd. You had to work hard for your runs. There was spongy bounce and the bowlers were pretty quick. It showed me how to build an innings and how Mumbai cricket was. They play aggressively, but at the same time can slow down the game too. I always had it in my mind that I wanted to experience what Mumbai cricket is. They play a tough game and that is why they have won so many championships. I have noted down all those thoughts from that day.”

“When I was 19, I’d made my debut in the Ranji Trophy. I had a good season in the one-dayers too. I made 270 runs in my debut season and was the third-highest scorer in West Zone,” elaborates Panchal. “Then I thought that it’s time to write down things. One day, if I want a story about myself, I should be able to read my diaries and feel good that I’ve done something in my life. If you’re interviewing me right now, I’ll go and write it down, make note of the questions that you have asked me.

“Sometimes, when I’ve been stuck in tough situations, I open my diary to see what I did in a similar situation. It reminds me that I can do this, I have done it before. I don’t even need to watch videos, if I just read two-three sentences it gives me a lot of confidence.”

These aren’t just words. Against Punjab on November 30, Panchal made Gujarat’s first-ever triple-century. And it was his diary that helped him plan the innings, bat through the long periods.

“I had made a triple-century at the age of 15 in a school tournament. And then two years ago I did it in a district match. I had noted down both,” revealed Panchal. “Before this season, I read through that to see how I had done it. Then whenever I was batting and I crossed 100, it was there in my mind that I’ve read it and 300 is possible. It helped me psychologically. I knew that I could do it.”

Panchal has got the art of making 300 down to a science almost. “To make a 300, you should know how to build your innings. I have read that getting from 150 to 200, you should play a bit quickly to get to 180, and then slow down a bit for the last 20 runs. After 200, till you get to 250, you can hit more shots, get more boundaries. Then in 250 to 300 just calm down, relax and concentrate on the singles. I had thought of this and done it too, so it has been in my mind.”

Reading his own diaries is one part. Panchal, the cricketer, is also secretly Panchal, the librarian. “My hotel rooms on tour are like a mini-library,” he laughs. And it’s not just cricket books, though they play a large part. “I read autobiographies of cricketing greats. I enjoyed ‘Timeless Steel’ on Rahul Dravid, and the autobiographies by Ricky Ponting sir, Matthew Hadyen, Sachin sir, Sunil Gavaskar sir, Glenn McGrath. Apart from cricket, I read those of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. I like their personalities. You can see Musk’s Tesla, SpaceX etc , and how he has thought out of the box about those things. It helps me think out of the box.

“I used to sit at the back, and never be able to talk to people. I couldn’t even talk to the person sitting next to me.” © Priyank Panchal

“I used to sit at the back, and never be able to talk to people. I couldn’t even talk to the person sitting next to me.” © Priyank Panchal

“I generally keep rotating five-six books. One of them now is a book recommended by Musk, ‘Super Intelligence’. It is all about science. I have never been into science but I want to face that challenge. It speaks about what algorithms are there behind a mobile phone, how the share market works, artificial intelligence – I never knew what was behind all this. Robin Sharma’s motivational books also interest me, he’s my favourite author at the moment.”

This from a man who confesses that, “the first book I read then, I couldn’t go beyond the first page and fell asleep”.

There is a shade of Dravid in the ways Panchal is actively seeking out things outside of cricket to expand the mind, and India’s greatest No.3 is indeed, his idol. “I met him in Under-15s and Under-17s at NCA because he used to train there. I was very shy then, and would get nervous approaching him. But I saw how he practiced. He replicated a match situation. He stayed there from 9 to 4, scheduled his lunch and snacks as per the match timings. That attracted me a lot. I haven’t written this in my diary but the picture is clear in my mind.”

Panchal is frank enough about his time at the NCA to say that he didn’t adopt all the coaching methods taught there. “At NCA, there was a lot of emphasis on technique, but that wasn’t working on me. My reasoning was if I spend so much time on technique, how will be able to focus on runs? I have this much confidence in my technique that if I spend time at the crease, I will score runs. I felt I need to hone my natural ability – that will give me better returns.”

Panchal prefers to let life, and his own experiences, be his best teachers. He has dealt with the loss of his father when he was just 15, leaving his mother, elder sister and himself more tightly knit than ever. He has lived through the practical difficulties of eking out a career in cricket – “my father made me choose cricket. My mother also wanted me to pursue the game” – as the child of a single parent. He has worked to get a Post Graduate Diploma in Financial Management and land a stable job at the Income Tax office in the sports quota. He keeps seeking out new courses online if something catches his eye, finding time even during the cricket season.

From the shy teenager who couldn’t string two sentences together, to Gujarat’s shining beacon who can’t go two matches without stringing centuries together, it’s been an eventful journey.