MAYANK AGARWAL was batting on 96 when his eyes lit up. India Green’s leg spinner Shreyas Gopal had dropped it short, which Mayank disdained to the mid-wicket fence. He stood immobile at his crease for a moment, his gaze fixed intently at the path of the delivery. And just seconds later, he raised his arms. Captain Gautam Gambhir, who was at the non-striker’s end, quietly came forward to shake hands with the centurion. The celebrations were rather tepid. Not surprising, considering this was only the second time Mayank had reached the landmark in first-class cricket. In 32 innings, before this, he had gone past 50 on eight occasions, but had never managed to convert them into three-digit scores.
Even in the last game against India Red, he was batting on 92 and looked in sight of a ton, when a rare moment of indiscretion did him in. “The disappointment notwithstanding, I am happy that I am batting well. I am getting into good positions, so I am currently in a good frame of mind,” Mayank explained. If the second Duleep Trophy match between India Red and India Blue had ended in a draw because of torrential rains and a soggy outfield, Day 1 of this knockout game began under clear skies and glorious sunshine. Winning the toss for the second time in a row, Gambhir had no hesitation in taking first strike on a placid track.
Mayank got into the act almost immediately, the second delivery to be precise, which was elegantly cut through the cover point region to kick-start his innings. Mayank, however, survived an lbw shout early in the innings, when Jasprit Bumrah’s inswinger thudded firmly on his pads. The umpire had raised the finger in the affirmative. However, replays showed the India Green’s pacer had overstepped. No-ball called, Mayank survived.
From then on, the Greens were on a leather hunt. Both openers put their heads down and stitched together an emphatic 212-run stand that took the sails out of Raina’s team. Like in the previous game, Mayank was extremely prolific through the off side, especially through the covers. However, his standout shot in the opening session was the emphatic punch shot straight down the ground off Dinda. Despite the early lbw appeal, Mayank was off to a rollicking start with a flurry of boundaries.
Gambhir on the other end was sedate. Batting with the open chested stance, he was happy to leave the deliveries outside his off stump at the start. But whenever he had an opportunity to free his arms, he cashed in. With the pitch offering no assistance for the seamers, Raina brought leg spinner Shreyas Gopal in the 13th over. Sadly, Gopal erred in both line and length, and like the pacers got little purchase from the placid track. By the tea break on Day 1, the duo had already taken the score to 117.
Batting with insouciance
Mayank, batting with insouciance, had raced to 70 off just 80 deliveries with 13 majestic hits to the fence. The Bangalore lad looked assured of crossing the three-figure mark this time around. Unflappable and showing high levels of concentration, he continued to prosper against a bowing attack that grew listless with every passing over.
Once he reached the 90s, he was willing to spend more time at the crease, conscious of not frittering away another glorious chance. He played out a few quiet overs from off-spinner Jalaj Saxena before he finally reached the coveted landmark. At the other end, Gambhir was orchestrating yet another clinical knock. However, a run out that ended his stay, falling 10 agonising runs short of what would have been a chanceless ton.
Cheteshwar Pujara joined Mayank in the 59th over, and the duo continued to bat with relative freedom. Mayank upped the ante after reaching a ton. Pujara, on the other hand, was slow to get off the blocks. But once he got into the groove, he was extremely prolific through the leg side. He brought up his half century, but in the scheme of things, the Saurashtra lad was clearly overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Mayank.
Mayank cut loose, unleashing a series of exquisite jabs and pull shots. Barely 15 minutes before the end of play, Mayank decided to take Dinda to the cleaners, smacking the Bengal pacer through the leg side off consecutive deliveries. He tried it for the third time in a row, but in the end it proved to be one shot too many. A mistimed pull shot ended Mayank’s vigil. He perished for 161, ending a profitable 103 run-stand for the second wicket with Pujara. Two more wickets fell post Mayank’s exit, but Pujara held fort, giving a good appraisal of himself in front of the selectors who were watching from sidelines.
Brief Scores: India Blue 1st Innings 336/3 in 90 overs (M Agarwal 161, G Gambhir 90, C Pujara 63 batting) vs India Green.