“IT WORRIES me that people are just going to tag me as a one-day and T20 player. Whenever I get a chance, I should make it count. Otherwise, I’m writing my own fate.” That was Mayank Agarwal’s honest and erudite summation of where his career stood in an interview two years ago. The Karnataka opener was yet to score a first-class century, had lost his place in the Ranji Trophy side, and at the same time, had just come off a typically blazing 87 against a full-strength South African team in a warm-up T20 game. That “tag” had never looked more appropriate or felt more vindicated.
So on the day he scored his first triple ton —304 not out at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune — his third century in First-Class cricket, it only seems apt to ask Agarwal whether he is happy with the way he’s changed the script regarding his “fate”. And also whether in his own head, he’d buried the tag of being a one-day player for good.
“I have gone past that stage. These days I only focus on what is working for me and go with it,” he tells The Indian Express and then laughs when reminded of his rather “articulate” self-critique in 2015. He then talks about how the tag had never sat well with him and it had led to a conscious decision to change his approach to batting.
“It did hit me that why are they talking about me only as a one-day player. I can get runs in the four-day format. Yes, it might not be the conventional way and that I’ve learnt from the great Virender Sehwag. I just have to find my own way,” he says.
The triple hundred helped Karnataka declare their first innings at 628/5, a first innings lead of 383. Karun Nair also got a ton. The visitors have a great chance of garnering seven points for an innings victory after reducing Maharashtra to 135/4 in their second essay.
The quest to find his own way commenced when he was picked to play in the Duleep Trophy last year. Agarwal found himself in an India Blue side opening alongside Gautam Gambhir and with Cheteshwar Pujara at No.3. And after a 92 in the first game, he ended up scoring his then highest first-class score of 161 in the following one against a bowling attack comprising Jasprit Bumrah, Ashok Dinda and Pragyan Ojha.
“I made a shift during that tournament. I decided that in the four-day format, I’m going to approach my innings differently. I said ‘ok, if that has to happen what are the shots that I need to play and what are the shots I need to avoid. What are the kind of shots that I am looking at initially and where am I looking to score the runs’. It got down to many minute things,” Agarwal reveals now.
It’s a rather competitive peer group to be a part of in the Karnataka camp. You need a triple ton to fit in after all. KL Rahul has one at first-class level while Nair has one in the Ranji Trophy final and also in a Test match against England. And a few years ago, not many would have expected Agarwal to join that illustrious group.
But as he reveals, it was Nair who egged him on from the other end to push for the 300-run mark. “I think I was batting on 250 and Karun was at the other end. When I raised my bat for 250, Karun said ‘keep going’. Everybody in the dressing room said when you get the opportunity take it with both hands,” he says.
Agarwal faced 494 balls for his 304 at the Maharashtra Cricket Association ground, the most he’s ever batted in his first-class career. It’s not always that you would focus on the number of balls faced by a triple centurion. But like Agarwal himself puts it, facing nearly 500 balls is nearly as significant for him as becoming only the third Karnataka batsman to make a triple century.
“The number of balls does matter to me because we have to adapt to different forms of the game and adapt to different situations. When I started the innings, the plan was not to give them early wickets and keep batting,” he explains.
Cautious till hundred
He did smash four sixes, but they all came once he had got himself to three figures. Agarwal’s has been an interesting journey. It started off with him finishing as the top run-getter in the 2010 under-19 World Cup where he opened with Rahul. Then came a few eye-catching performances in T20 cricket for Karnataka which prompted an IPL stint with RCB where he opened regularly with Chris Gayle. But he recalls having made a decent start to his long-form career and having realised that he couldn’t keep going after the ball with impudence in four-day cricket.
“I got a 90 in the first innings I played against Jharkhand. Then I got a 45 against Gujarat and I got out on 80 against Vidarbha at long-on in Nagpur. There was an easy 100 for the taking but I kept playing my strokes and I realised what had to be done,” he says.
That it’s taken him four years from that point on to actually achieve the maturity required to succeed in the longer format, forget score a triple century, doesn’t seem to bother him anymore.
Brief scores: Maharashtra 245 and 135/4 (Ruturaj Gaikwad 61, R Tripathi 33 no, Mithun A 2/32) trail Karnataka 628/5 Decl (Mayank Agarwal 304 no, Samarth 129, Karun Nair 116, C Khuarna 3/147) by 248 runs