BACK IN the day while at Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, Mayank Agarwal was known for his Virender Sehwag obsession. He didn’t just bat and bowl like his hero, the boy from Bengaluru even asked his barber to chop his hair so he would resemble the man from Nafajgarh. “He was a Sehwag Wikipedia, knew every bit about him, which shot he played against which spinner to complete that century, or which shot he played against that bowler to get out,” says his childhood coach R X Murali.
On Wednesday, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Agarwal showed that those impressionable teenage days were a thing of the past — the 27-year-old had metamorphosed from a flashy stroke-maker to a tranquil presence in the middle.
Agarwal’s cautious but classy knock of 76 on his debut also showcased the talent and temperament of a player who could solve Indian cricket’s perennial problem — opening in Tests. As for now, he ensured that India were 215 for two at stumps on Day One of the third Test in a series poised at 1-1.
“He still likes to dominate the bowlers, but not wanting to hit each and every delivery out of the park. He’s become patient, mature, someone who can play according to the situation,” says former Karnataka coach J Arun Kumar, who has closely followed Agarwal’s career.
And yet, it was the “Viru” approach that got the opener his initial success. His six-hitting prowess saw him getting picked for the U-19 World Cup and landed him an IPL contract. The transition to the senior level wasn’t smooth. In his first three first-class seasons, he didn’t score a single hundred. The ouster from the state team in 2014 saw him reach the nadir.
As his world crumbled, the reality that he was no Sehwag slowly sunk in. Murali sensed the fear and had a long chat with him. “I reassured him that he had the game. But the first thing was about accepting that he was no Sehwag,” says Murali.
What happened between then and now is well storied — technical tweaks, fitness drills, 1,000 throwdowns a session, temperamental soundness and truckloads of domestic runs. At the MCG, the Australians were talking about his 2,162 runs last domestic season, the most scored by any Indian. Jaws dropped when they got to know how he made 1,000 of those in one month.
His approach to batting might have changed but Agarwal still showed Sehwag-like temperament at the MCG. Although the pitch was benign, the pressure was piling up. The grandeur of the stage, the scrutiny back home, the shake-up to expel an experienced pair of openers and the fear of being bracketed as a domestic bully. And beyond it all, facing a world-class bowling attack.
But Agarwal took his time and blunted the bowlers. In fact, rather than Sehwag, the Australian commentators spotted a bit of Virat Kohli in him, especially with the cover-drives, the forward thrust and the use of wrists.
He fell 24 short of a ton but his stay of close to two sessions and 161 balls came as a huge relief for the dressing room that is so used to seeing the openers return early. Most importantly, he had made his childhood idol happy. “Very happy for @mayankcricket. Has waited for his opportunity and has made it count on the big stage,” Sehwag tweeted.