At different stages of his career, Mayank Agarwal had sought unconventional methods to fine-tune his game. Like taking meditation classes, then branching out to the Vipassana school of meditation, practising yoga, watching cartoons, and long-distance running among others. Sometimes, his net sessions too are unique, like the other day at the nets, he made throw-down specialist Raghavendraa roll the ball along through the ground, which he firmly drove, mostly straight, from the crease.
Like in the past, the latest training method seemed to have worked for the opener as he scored a confidence-building 99-ball 81 (retired out) in the second innings of the tour game. It’s clearly the best Agarwal has batted on this tour—scoring nearly thrice as many runs as he had in the limited over series, wherein his scores read 32, 1, 3. His numbers against New Zealand A too weren’t great —0, 0, 24, 37, 29, 32 and 8. No matter how magnificently his Test career might have panned out, this stretch of poor runs would alarmed himself and the team management, more so as he’s India’s most experienced opening batsman of the series, and both his prospective partners are 20-year-olds, one yet to make his debut and the other returning from a lay-off. Both have a combined experience of two games. So India could ill-afford an out-of-form Agarwal.
Back to the pre-game net session, where he spent a lot of time working on his batting. After every stroke he hit off the throw-down, Agarwal would mark the exact point of his follow through, to understand how fluently his feet were moving and how far forward it’s coming. The stance was also different, he would crouch a fraction more than usual, open up the stance a bit and made a concerted effort to move his back-foot across and stretch as far forward as he possibly could.
He was trying to iron out a glitch that has recently crept into his game, specifically in the limited-over games. If you rewind to some of his dismissals in the ODIs, you could see him getting into ugly tangles, bowlers opening him up and getting him squared up, particularly the ball that would hold its line after angling in. He was lunging and shoving at the ball rather than defending it beside his body. Such modes of dismissals can make you look like a novice and drain the morale.
It’s the dodgy footwork that troubled in the first innings of the warm-up game too, when he would stab at back-of-length balls from the crease, his feet crease-tied. He was comfortable defending the short-balls on the back-foot, but struggled with the in-between lengths outside the off-stump, where he would be in dilemma ridden, whether to play on the front-foot or back-foot. The unusual bounce the surface spat out in the first innings too might have been contributive to his indiscretion.
The back-foot would remain static, or drag onto the leg-stump while his front-foot would make a hesitant prod. Not the full front-foot stride. Once the alignment of his feet goes awry, his whole game disintegrates. He’s not one of those all-hands players, who make up for static feet with the suppleness of the hands, rather a sum of different parts. Resultantly, for him to be at his best he needs a perfect alignment of each of those parts. He subsequently loses the shape at the crease, turns twitchy and fidgety, and as an off-shoot loses control of his shots.
The simple drill, thus, was to get his feet moving fluidly and precisely, as it used to be during his spectacular home season. Terrific though his returns might have been in this period, a few middling outings are all it requires to induce self-doubts. And there was a time in the career when he was afflicted by apprehensions. So he wanted to cleanse his mind of those failings as fast as possible before a Test series. “It’s been a little different playing here but I want to leave all that behind. I was just being a little too closed. That’s just one part of it. I have sat with Vikram Rathour sir and worked on it. After I got out in the first innings, I went back behind to the nets, did a lot of drills,” he revealed.
Then he paused and added a philosophical line, like the platitudinal ones you find in self-help or spiritual books: “Whatever has happened has happened. There’s no point thinking of the past,” he said. This is a line he repeats when he’s not among the runs, and it’s where the benefits of yoga and meditation have kicked in. He’s no longer over-analytical or hard on himself as he once used to be. But it’s still difficult to cut out the immediate past from the subconscious, no matter how smartly you have identified the flaws and worked towards correcting it.
But nothing soothes a batsman like runs and how he gets those runs. Here he strode out authoritatively, the back-foot was moving across smoothly and not getting dragged on. Subsequently, he got into better positions to play the balls—so he has defending stoutly, driving fluently, the hands were coming along nicely and the feet-movement was orchestrated. Late on second day, he demonstrated his fondness for driving with a flurry of drives all around the ground.
His cover drives could be more eye-catchy, but it’s the more minimalistic on-drive, bereft of one-for-the-camera flourishes and an exaggeratedly high front-elbow, that helps his gauge his touch. “You know that you have to be doing a lot of things correct to hit an on-drive. When I got a couple of those, it gave me the assurance that was required.”
One of those was of Daryll Mitchell, who was seaming the ball late into the batsman. Two such balls had devoured Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill, the former clumsy with his foot-work and culpable of swiping across the line while the former was relatively new to the crease. But Agarwal played it so close to the body and assessing the degree of swing let his wrists guide the ball just a touch wide of the umpire.
Buoyed, he played a flurry of breathless strokes, including a short-arm semi-Nataraja pull. It short-of-length than a short ball, angled into his body, but he lifted front-leg and just glided it past the fine-leg. To the spinners too, he didn’t step out to meet them but would play them from the crease, again pressing forward fully. Whenever they erred on the shorter side, he would hang back and slap them fine to the third man.
Apart from a couple of times, noticeably so when he tried to steer a climbing back-of-length ball through gully, he was in utter control of his shot. The best he had been in the series, a far-cry from the travails of white-ball leg of the series and more in tune with some of his Test knocks last year. It wouldn’t have arrived at a better time, when his patchy form would have proved a messy riddle. And how an unconventional little drill has paid off for Agarwal.
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