It wasn’t long ago that Mayank Agarwal was grinding it out in domestic cricket, with an India call-up appearing a distant dream. In fact, it would come as a surprise to many that Agarwal was not even a regular for his home state of Karnataka in First-Class (FC) matches until a couple of years ago. To break into the Indian Test side, Mayank had to out-do himself and prove his skeptics wrong.
That breakthrough happened in November 2017, when the Karnataka opener broke through the selectors’ furnished teak door with a pickaxe. Well, not literally, but there’s barely a better way to describe how exceptional Agarwal’s month was. Starting with a triple hundred to set the ball rolling, he took his tally of runs to 1064 making scores of 176, 23, 90, 133*, 173 and 104* in 28 days.
What stood out in Agarwal’s game that month was a penchant for scoring big and at a fair clip consistently. His strike rate of 68.38 in FC games came with little undue risk taken. Aggression comes naturally to him, but he would be the last person to step out and play a lofted drive when it isn’t warranted. The need to keep his natural game in wraps and play according to situation is something that Mayank learnt early in his career when trying to squeeze his way into a star-studded Karnataka team.
Having made a name in his under-19 days by topping the run charts and then with a rollicking 142-ball 160 at Hobart against Australia under-19 team alongside Mandeep Singh (113-ball 151) more than a decade ago, Mayank’s career had failed to take off. A FC debut came in 2013, three years after he debuted for Karnataka in the T20 format, but he failed to establish himself in the side then.
In 2015, Agarwal was dropped from the Karnataka FC side for not putting up consistent scores. He did not have a FC ton at the time and a regular place in the Karnataka side looked impossible even as his List A career was blossoming. It taught Mayank that to remain in contention, he had to be an outlier to his former self, someone who stood out even when the stars were there. A maiden FC ton happened in 2016 but the opener was still not pleased with his own game. Luckily, he had an equally diligent coach in R Muralidhar, popularly known as RX in Karnataka cricketing circles.
In 2017-18, even with Karnataka having the services of K L Rahul, Manish Pandey and Karun Nair, Mayank managed to stand out. His focus was unwavering. Mayank was on a mission. Speaking to this writer shortly after his record month in domestic cricket, Mayank spoke about working on his technique and sticking to a strict fitness regime.
Long-distance running had become a part of his routine and he would bat for 5-6 hours in net practice just to hone his skills and instill in him the patience to bat long hours. Muralidhar also tuned his mental game but the massive change happened when his father advised him to do Vipassana, a meditation technique. Even when there was lot of talk about his call-up for the Sri Lankan series, Agarwal stayed focused. He was instead intent on sticking to the process that had worked for him—train hard and score runs at domestic level.
He was least undaunted when the call-up came as was evident from his treatment of Nathan Lyon in the Test match at Melbourne. Forcing Lyon to switch to a defensive line with his nimble footwork, Agarwal made an instant impression coming in as a replacement for Prithvi Shaw, who was out injured during the tour.
At Vizag, on Day One of the first Test against the Proteas, a placid track, where runs were begging to be made, awaited Mayank. Though he had made runs in Australia, a quiet West Indies series and the fickleness of the Indian management meant that Agarwal was far from cementing down his spot.
For once, he was the senior of the two opening partners and the spotlight was on Rohit Sharma and his new role. This gave Agarwal that extra amount of space to settle into his groove. Giving the first hour to the bowlers, Agarwal grit his way through an impeccable new ball spell from Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander. When the spinners came and there was turn, Mayank was well into his bubble, composed and determined to make a big score on a surface where runs were there for the taking. Luckily, he found an equally resolute Sharma at the other end.
Bit by bit, ball by ball, over by over, the two thwarted South Africa and ground them down. Mayank’s focus has always been on batting long. The extended net sessions and the long distance running were all tools to help him find the levels of concentration required surviving spells like the one Philander and Rabada dished out at him. Of course, a ball with his name on it would come by but that was fine as long as he had given it his all.
From making twin ducks before turning it around with a triple hundred the next game and a 1000-run month following that, Mayank knew how to overcome obstacles. He has an obsession with his routine and for an opener that is a good quality to have, especially in this day and age when opening the batting is becoming a tougher job.
With his stunning double ton, Mayank has replicated his magic in International cricket. It isn’t beyond him to carry on in this same vein of form and perhaps make it into the limited-overs side too. After all, he was for long pigeon-holed as a limited overs specialist by Karnataka and his List A record is incredible: Average close to 50 and strike rate above 100. With India still zeroing in on a back-up opener, Mayank’s Test form might just spur his ODI recall too, much like his World Cup call-up out of the blue.