In February this year, in the middle of a surreally prolific domestic season, Mayank Agarwal was caught up between hope and fear. Fear that all his runs, 2,000-plus and counting then, could go rudely unrequited. Hope that he could live his biggest dream, to play for his country, sooner than later. When reality sunk in— that the three established openers, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, were giving the selectors and skipper Virat Kohli ample permutational headaches — the hope would ebb. But periodically, his mind would wander, and there came a time, just before the previous edition of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, that his thoughts became all the more cluttered.
That’s when he turned into his state-team skipper and friend Karun Nair, who several of his Karnataka teammates confide in. “You speak to Karun, and suddenly you feel unburdened, less nervous. He’s always composed, soaks up the pressure and rubs on his positivity to you,” Rahul had once said, after the pair had put on a 386-run partnership in the 2015 Ranji final against Tamil Nadu.
Nair himself was ploughing through uncertain times, omitted from the national team after the Australia series, four innings after his triple hundred against England, and unsure of whether he would find his way back into the team. But he empathised with Agarwal and allayed his fears with a simple piece of advice: “Keep scoring like you have been. There will come a time when the runs you score start speaking for you. We have played a lot of cricket together for the state and hopefully, we will do it for the country too.”
An uncluttered Agarwal went on to rack 723 runs in eight innings, fuelling Karnataka to the Vijay Hazare Trophy title. He was proving to be un-ignorable, with heaps of runs coming in the A tours, but Agarwal’s national hopes continued to remain unfulfilled.
He wished his friend and skipper the very best for the England series, but when Prithvi Shaw was preferred to him for the last two Tests in England, he must have felt indubitably crushed.
But a month on, Agarwal finds himself on the brink of living his dream, though when he lands in Rajkot, he wouldn’t be greeted by the familiar, bubbly smiling skipper and friend of his. In what could at best be described an cryptic decision —the entire process of picking Nair in the first place, benching him for the entire England tour, preferring a just-flown-in Hanuma Vihari to him in the final Test of the series and then dropping him eventually — Nair would return to rebuilding his dream from the base, while Agarwal would look to make the best of the break, provided he gets one, unlike Nair.
For once, Nair couldn’t hold back his agony. “It is difficult, naturally for a human being, it’s difficult to handle that situation, or to take that as a human being,” Nair said on the sidelines of the Board President’s XI-West Indies warm-up game. “But the team management and everyone else involved make a decision, and me as a player has to accept it. There’s nothing else I can do. Whenever I get an opportunity, I will let the bat do the talking. I can’t be saying anything else on that.”
Or in other words, he just needs to do what Agarwal had been doing all this while, to rewind his own piece of advice to Agarwal, score runs against all and sundry, on all varieties of pitches, against seam and spin, bounce and swing, keep knocking at the door until it swings open, and reclaim the trust of the team management, for whatever intriguing reasons it was fractured. The background doesn’t look as grim as it was for Agarwal, who was vying to displace three established openers, before two of them fell into a wretched slump, and the third retrieving himself in what was prospectively his last opportunity. He is vying with a similarly uncapped batsman, Prithvi Shaw, nearly a decade younger than him. Few would have conceived such an eventuality in February, when Agarwal was rampaging all those runs.
Filling the spots
Nair’s plight’s not as dire as it was for Agarwal back then – it’s no exaggeration that India have a flimsy lower middle-order. A specialist number six was dearly missed several times in the England series. Vihari, however resolute he looked in the Oval Test, is far from nailing down a spot. That Rohit Sharma is not in the squad means he’s no longer in the larger scheme of the selectors, despite his rich vein of form in limited-over games (then, it has been the leitmotif of his career). A bad series for Vihari, coupled with banner scores for Nair in the Ranji Trophy, could bolster the latter’s case, and the Karnataka pair could reunite and live their youthful dream together.
Agarwal’s latest fear would be whether Nair’s fate could befall him. It’s unlikely, though not unfounded, precisely for the reason that India would look to experiment with a few opening combinations, revolving around the axis, KL Rahul, as they wouldn’t be playing any more Tests between the West Indies series and the Australia tour.
Moreover, India are hard-pressed to unearth a new pairing for the series Down Under, and Agarwal could at least get more opportunities than Nair. Returning to Vijay and Dhawan, the latter more so, will be a retrograde measure. Hence, Agarwal could end up getting a longer rope than the unfortunate Nair.
So in a sense, where the story of Agarwal’s persistence reaches fruition, the narrative of Nair’s comeback begins to take shape.