'My priority is being a reliable Test batsman'

Jeet Raval avoids a short ball Getty Images

If Jeet Raval pens an autobiography, he could dedicate an entire chapter to 2016.

The opener began the year by finishing as Auckland's second-highest run-getter in a victorious Plunket Shield season, with scores of 202 not out, 139, 90 and 147 in his last five matches. Then, in a move his wife no doubt disapproved of, he went to England to play club cricket of going on honeymoon.

When they finally managed a quick getaway to Greece, he received a phone call informing him of his maiden call-up to the New Zealand Test side for the tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa in July-August. Before the year ended, at 28, Raval had earned his Test cap and had struck a maiden Test fifty in a New Zealand win against a fiery Pakistan attack in Christchurch.

Now, Raval is back in the country of his birth for the first time as a professional cricketer, playing for the New Zealand A team, and he hopes to build on his journey and become a Test regular. Five half-centuries in seven Tests indicate potential, but being a man of numbers - he holds a bachelors degree in commerce and hopes to finish his masters in accountancy soon - he knows he'll need to keep churning out the runs to stave off competition.

"Initially, I used to score runs but I got by doing just about enough to keep my place," he says of his first-class career. "Over time, you realise you have to score big runs. If you get a hundred, go on and convert. Averaging 40-50 isn't good. My aim is for 65, because that is what it takes for one to stay clear of the rest. It's hard in conditions back home, but if it was easy, everybody could do it. It is a scrap at the end of the day."

The 'scrap' which Raval refers to has been a thread that has run through his life since his early adolescence in India. His parents wanted him to pursue engineering or medicine. "Like most Indian parents do," he laughs. But the decision to move to New Zealand and his own inclination towards cricket because he had already stepped up to a "decent level" helped him find a different path.

Raval had played for Gujarat's Under-15s and Under-17s, and was hesitant to relocate. His parents convinced him to move for a six-month period just to see life in a new country and experience a new culture.

After giving himself time to decide if he would stay or return home to "Am-da-vaaad", which he pronounces as fluently as any Gujarati, he had begun to enjoy New Zealand. "The quality of life is much better. If you do something, there's value for it in New Zealand," he says. "In India, I'm not so sure if you do something, you will get the same kind of reward. That's what convinced me to stay back.

"Here there's always a scrap for life. But somewhere, I feel, I think I carried that mentality to New Zealand, because I started off at 20-21 and didn't do too well. You have to have that mentality to come out of failures, that's where the scrap mentality has helped me."

Raval the batsman enjoys this scrap too. He accepts that there are more flamboyant batsmen than him, but he wouldn't change his technique for anything.

He was a strokemaker in his junior days in India. Playing on dry Ahmedabad surfaces, he says, required batsmen to score quickly so that they had some runs to show for before the 45-degree summer heat got to them. Opening the batting on damp and green New Zealand pitches necessitated a transformation.

He had to unlearn the batting style of his early days and piece together a new technique, after a string of failures in domestic cricket. This period, in 2008, coincided with Raval having to miss out on a berth in New Zealand's Under-19 World Cup squad over eligibility issues.

He was, however, fortunate to have a core group of people who he trusted, who helped him shed the shyness of his teenage self and emerge as a more confident individual. He worked closely with his first club coach Kit Perera, a Sri Lankan settled in New Zealand, Richard Jones, his first club captain, and Barrington Rowland, the former Karnataka batsman who was part of a successful Ranji Trophy side in the late 90s and early 2000s. Even today, these are the first people he turns to outside his family, when needed.

"Kit Perera is my life coach," Raval says. "We chat about everything under the sun. It can be something as simple as how I'm feeling to where we're having dinner. We share interesting experiences. Richard is a mentor, and we chat about the mental aspects. He picks me up when I'm down and keeps me steady when things are going well. Barrington, who has had plenty of success in the Ranji Trophy, has become really close as well. We enjoy talking about batting, technique and he's seen it evolve closely.

"Three contrasting mentors have completed the full circle for me. There's a lot of trust. All of them have tried to put that balance into me in different ways. It takes courage to open up. I've been blessed to have some really good people around me throughout this journey."

In four successive seasons from 2011-12 to 2014-15, Raval averaged over 40 in the Plunket Shield, and those performances earned him a spot in the New Zealand A team. Then came the 2015-16 season and his tally of 780 runs at 55.71 to drive Auckland's title push. Having won a Test spot thanks to that kind of consistency, he intends to hold on tight, and says he is prioritising the longest format over the others.

"For a few years I've been focusing on Test opportunities. Now that it's come, don't want to let it go by trying too hard in limited-overs formats and lose focus of what I do well," he says. "It's about establishing my place in Tests. I understand I can never be a player who can blast bowling attacks in T20 cricket, but if I can be a batsman like Kane Williamson or Hashim Amla, good strokeplayers, yet capable of batting long hours, that's what I'm aiming for.

"We don't play too many Tests, just four (two each against West Indies and England) over the next 12 months. In the middle, it's all just white-ball. So there's an opportunity for me to put into practice what I want to achieve in the shorter formats. I can probably work on my game a bit more then, but my priorities of being a reliable Test batsman are firmly in place."

One other thing he doesn't want to lose sight of is the five exams he still has to complete to finish his accountancy masters. "Over time, I've learnt cricket is important, but not the only thing in life. As a sportsperson, you have just a short career, and you need to have an option to go back to."