A few months ago, when Mayank Agarwal was dismantling one domestic milestone after another and yet not being reciprocated with national recognition, a concerned former Karnataka teammate, who’d known him since he was a teenager, rung him: “Mayank, if you feel dejected, please feel free to call me whenever you want.” Agarwal laughed his gut out and replied: “Sir, it’s the most peaceful phase of my career. I have no worries, no concerns, I’m batting blissfully. Thank you”
The teammate was concerned because Agarwal in the past had struggled to handle setbacks. There were people around to lean on, from contemporaries like KL Rahul and Karun Nair, to seniors like R Vinay Kumar and Robin Uthappa, expert coaches like J Arun Kumar and RX Murali. But he seemed torn and confused.
But before the distressed Agarwal, there was the uninhibited, ever-smiling six-hitting wunderkind, who terrorised bowlers. The approach wasn’t safe. His methods made eyes boggle but he soon realised the approach wouldn’t take him anywhere. He tried to change, yet could not. His instincts and muscle memory were too overpowering. This resulting in utter indecisiveness. His Indian Premier League stakes seldom plummeted, but his ambitions were steeper and the inability to achieve those shattered his world.
It was around the same time that his close friend Rahul made his Test debut. Though he was happy for his friend, he pitied his own plight, his career nosediving from the dizzy heights it had once promised. A reality check helped — he realised it’s time he put his head down and iron out the technical deficiencies. There were quite a few, from a wobbly head to an unstable base, an intricate shuffle and a tendency to lunge from the crease. There were temperamental vulnerabilities too, like getting distracted all too easily.
Re-instilling lost confidence
But before it became a bigger malaise, his friend and coaches chimed in. Former Karnataka coach J Arun Kumar realised that it was about re-instilling his lost confidence, his mentor Murali chalked out a technical makeover, and his friends kept him cheery. What followed was a remarkable tale of transformation. Explains Murali: “I told him that the only way to relive his dreams is to work hard and be patient. He was always a hardworking boy, but needed to work harder. And once the technical corrections were made and he internalised those, it was a matter of getting practice. I also told him that he needed to be patient, for such changes can’t bear fruits immediately.”
He would stutter and stumble, but would pick his game again. Flaws again crept into his game but he kept working at those. Gradually, he tamed his inner fears to such an extent that nothing affected him, neither pressure of expectations nor emotions. He did admit to getting emotional before he walked into the middle on his Test debut, but did well to conceal those feelings, apart from an impetuous attempt to drive at a wide delivery from Mitchell Starc. But there were few other hassles — even the ball he got struck on chest by was down to uneven bounce more than misjudgement.
It presents an ideal opportunity to dwell on his technique. While the bat-held-over-head pose concedes an impression that he could get into unnecessary tangles, it comes down in a sweet, straight arc. Slacking the shuffle has made his movements easier, making him less susceptible to the incoming deliveries. His front-foot stride is long and certain — he effortlessly stepped down to Nathan Lyon and smeared him for a six over long-on. There are no half-prods — he’s either fully back or forward — indicative of an uncluttered mind.
What stood out as much as technical sturdiness was clarity of mind. Whereas in the past he would have been carried away and looked to assert himself on bowlers, and in the process perish, here he was measured, methodical and precise. Impatience had been his nemesis in the past, but patience now comes naturally to him. Not just when batting, but also in his quest for playing international cricket. At the peak of his run-glut, it would have been convenient for him to get affected by all the talk of him being treated harshly, overlooked for a dashing young opener in the West Indies Test series, friends and acquaintances wondering whether his nerves might creak.
But he remained unflustered, continued stacking runs, waited for his opportunity, which seemed remote as recent as the start of this series, but when it arrived, he maximised it. He understands the purpose of it. “Every player has to go through scoring runs in Ranji Trophy and doing what he has to do. I did that and I am very happy about that. And I learnt a lot as well. When you play Ranji Trophy for five years and play in all parts of India, you learn a lot from that. You face different situations, and it’s always a great learning.”
In a sense, he was lucky that his tryst with Test cricket came on a more Asian than antipodean surface — without the characteristic bounce, pace and carry. Not like Johannesburg or Nottingham, which could have been a crucible. He admitted as much: “I won’t complain about the pitch. I thought it was good to bat on. It did do a bit early on, and it was slow. And as the day progressed and when we batted after lunch, it got a little quicker,” he observes. But even if it were tackier, Mayank seemed ready for anything.