Discussions about batting technique aren’t just a digression for Mayank Agarwal. He would get obsessed with it so much that after a few intense years, his coach RX Murali had to devise a diversion, to avoid so much tech-talk. And Murali is a “technique” coach! That’s how desperate Agarwal was to get his game together to achieve his ambition of playing for India.
Much of the diversionary alleys were paved with meditation and fitness; Agarwal even attempted to marinate the two together. He would run long distances without the mental crutch of music in his ears. He didn’t want to block out thoughts with songs, but allowed them to come into his head and swirl out without getting caught up in them. The meditative headspace he desired when batting. Self-doubts and distracting thoughts could drift in but shouldn’t linger on. He desired a sense of balance at the crease, physically and mentally.
In this Indian team, not many batsmen have continuously overhauled their games as much as Agarwal. Most innovate within an existing framework, but Agarwal’s are re-inventions. That this can be achieved at this level, so clinically, passionately and professionally is gripping in its own way.
Like the way he holds his bat these days, as the bowler runs in. Agarwal put that method in place three years back, says Murali. There are two things in particular that stands out: The bat’s toe-end faces the sky, and the hands are behind his right hip, way back.
Why does the bat end face skywards, vertically up? The tall Mark Waugh used to go with the vertically-down approach, his hands relaxed as he waited for the ball to be released. Sachin Tendulkar held it more conventionally, and would lever the bat up. Graham Gooch had the bat up but not as much as Agarwal.
“The bat is at its heaviest when parallel to the ground. When it’s vertically up – or down – it’s lightest. When it’s 90-degree facing skywards or downwards, it’s lighter. Mayank wasn’t comfortable keeping it down. So, we decided to take it up. This also helps in the wrist cocking-uncocking process and smooth bat-swing,” Murali says.
This unique positioning of the bat is allied with the way Agarwal has his hands behind his body. His friend KL Rahul comes close in terms of having his hands back but even his laxman rekha is at the right hip; Agarwal breaches it often. Why?
“To get the bat moving freely. His bat was overlapping his arm in his pick-up in the past. He used to cock his wrists so much that his bat used to pass his front shoulder at times. It wasn’t helping him time the ball well. Since he had to uncock it perfectly before hitting the ball, he wasn’t able to repeat it consistently,” says Murali.
In other words, he had to make the entire bat movement simpler. “Yes, so that he could be more consistent. That’s when we decided to have his hands behind his right hip. It restricts him from cocking his wrists too much. Now, everything syncs better, and the movement is smoother and repeatable.”
This allows for a free movement of the bat to time the ball well, and also helps him stay side-on, says the coach.
“That’s the reason for him to have his hands behind the right hip. He wanted to be in the side-on position and stay still for longer – that makes his balance better. This then helps in smooth downswing of the bat and helps his timing. What happens before the ball doesn’t matter. What happens when the ball is released is what counts. At the time of the release, he is side-on, completely free. Sometimes this method can make you grip the bat too tightly, but he loosens it at release,” Murali tells this newspaper.
Of course, it isn’t as straightforward as that. When the bat is held high and behind the body, there is a threat that Martin Crowe used to talk about. “There is a potential for the hips, shoulders, and head to all close off and for the outside eye [Right eye for the right-hander] to aim at mid-off.”
Crowe would worry about another thing with this stance, that can be seen now and then with Agarwal. “When standing tall, the weight can easily shift on to the heels,” Crowe would say. This was the case in Agarwal’s first innings in Adelaide. When he tried to get forward, the front foot landed on the heel, toe lifted in the air and the transfer of weight went awry. Ideally, batsmen prefer to stay on the balls of the feet, which allows for the best weight transfer. Agarwal landed on the front heel and was late with everything as a result: late on the ball, late in getting the bat down, late in closing the bat-pad-gap, and the ball shot through his defence to clatter the stumps. In the second innings too, occasionally he landed on the heel, and was invariably in trouble when he did so, edging one through slips.
In these times, the whole set-up (high bat-lift and hands behind body) can seem troublesome but line it up with what it seemingly offers Agarwal: An easier cocking-uncocking process, smoother bat-swing, and he, and his coach, feel it allows him to be more side-on. Murali isn’t worried as much about coaching batting technique as he is about coaching run-making; and the pair felt this was the best way to go for Agarwal.
Crucially, it allows him to do the most important thing he wants to do at the crease: Watch the ball. “By holding the bat up like that, it also helps him track the ball that much longer while he is waiting. Watching the ball is all he is doing now. It helps him lock into that position as his hands aren’t doing anything else. He can focus on the other things: staying still in side-on, tracking the ball longer, and reacting to it.”
Agarwal wasn’t that good against spin a few years back, often holing out, but has made a remarkable turnaround on that front and took the lead in taking on Nathan Lyon in the last series in Australia. It remains to be seen if he tinkers with his technique further.
All the minute iterations go into Agarwal’s mental checklist that he ticks off as he settles into the stance. The grip on the bat, the position of the hands with respect to his body, the vertical bat-lift, the shoulder, the head, and then he is ready to watch the ball.
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