One loves reading history. The other loves talking and dreaming cricket. Not that Jiwanjot Singh is a bookworm or reluctant to work on his game and improve. He has his way of focusing. So has Mandeep Singh, who has just cricket in his mind. “I do my own reading,” he smiles.

Mandeep, with the help of his brother Harvinder Singh had to convince his father, athletics coach Sardar Hardev Singh, to allow him to pursue cricket at the Sports College in Jalandhar.

At one point, he did not have money to pay the coaching fees. For Jiwanjot, support came from his father, Sardar Kamaljeet Singh, who would bowl left-arm pace to his son at ‘nets’ in Patiala. Sardar Hardev now revels in his son’s exploits. “He is my biggest supporter,” Mandeep acknowledges his father’s affection.

Jiwanjot, 23, and Mandeep, 22, the two pillars of Punjab cricket this season, bring solidity and consistency to the team’s batting at different positions upfront and in the middle order. Scoring runs in times of distress, they have borne the burden of the run-making task and delivered in style.

Marked men

Both are marked men by the opposition and they pride themselves in being targeted. It makes them more responsible towards their job, they concur.

“My last two seasons have not really been up to the mark by my own expectations. My confidence has been up this year and I expect more from myself. I have worked a lot on my technique,” says Mandeep.

“My first season was easy because not many bowlers knew about me. I have had to work harder to get runs this season,” says Jiwanjot, leading scorer for Punjab with 728 runs in 16 innings thus far.

A change in stance, to help his “balance”, meant Mandeep was comfortable in tackling the bowlers. “My strength is footwork and the change in stance, with a widened base, helps me stay balanced. I bat with lesser tension now because I don’t create pressure on myself by looking to dominate early. My graph had dropped because I raised my benchmark. I look at targets realistically now. Adaptability is the key,” Mandeep, with 599 runs in 16 innings, shares his approach.

He began the season with a rousing 175 against Odisha and confirmed his potential with a priceless 101 at No. 7 against Jammu and Kashmir in the tightly contested quarterfinal at Vadodara.

Valuable investment

Jiwanjot is a valuable investment for Indian cricket. A composed opener with a well introspected style, he is aware of his limitations. “My strength is playing straight. I do work on my shots but it all depends on the pitch. I study the pitch minutely and then decide the course of attack. I have trained hard on tackling the short ball and playing the cut.

“The first season I made runs mostly at home. This year I have succeeded in away matches too by playing the ball late and relying more on the backfoot,” says Jiwanjot, who crafted a 280-ball 147 against Delhi and followed it with a contrasting 78-ball 78 against Jharkhand.

The mild-mannered Jiwanjot says, “It helps if you play the ball and not worry about the bowler’s reputation. It also helps if you stop worrying about getting out. Runs are important but it is also essential to spend time in the middle. I know if I respect the bowlers I’ll find my way. Also, the runs are good only if the team benefits. My 147 against Delhi was nice but my 200 (against Vidarbha) did not come in a winning cause. One must score when the team needs it.”

The quartet of Vikram Rathour (National selector), Bhupinder Singh (coach), Harbhajan Singh (captain) and Yuvraj Singh are credited with the change of fortunes as Punjab played like a compact team, staging exceptional recoveries to win matches, especially the comeback against Delhi. As Jiwanjot is engrossed with the book on Punjab’s history and Mandeep contemplates a session in the indoor ‘nets’, Harbhajan looks on in appreciation.

Mandeep and Jiwanjot complement each other, their desire to make runs equally fierce, both love music too. But Mandeep claims he can beat Jiwanjot at bhangra. The opener bows with a smile!

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