Updated: December 4, 2021 8:01:08 am
In his first eight Test matches, split equally home and abroad, Mayank Agarwal had two double centuries, a century and three half-centuries. Then he had a quiet couple of games in Australia, and found himself behind Shubman Gill in the queue. Then he got hit on the head by Mohammed Siraj in England. KL Rahul returned and rediscovered himself in the longest format. Meanwhile, Rohit Sharma was being, well, Rohit Sharma.
If one plays basically one format for India, like Agarwal does at the moment, to be slotted as back-up Test opener is possibly the hardest position in the game to be in. Then he got a game after close to a year, and promptly nicked off against the class of Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson. It can be an unforgiving gig, to be occasionally tasked with blunting the new red ball.
So unforgiving that had Agarwal been sacrificed for incoming captain Virat Kohli for the Mumbai Test, it probably wouldn’t have caused too much indignation. He wasn’t going to be opening at the Wanderers anyway come the first Test against South Africa, unless there was an injury to the regulars.
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 3, 2021
After his name was included in the XI for the noon start at Wankhede Stadium, Agarwal made sure he was still batting when play was called off for bad light five minutes before extended time came to an end with the hosts at 221/4.
All of his four Test centuries – 215, 108, 243 and this unbeaten 120 – have come at home, and all the four fifties away from home. While that does tell something about his conversion ability, all the home daddy hundreds have not been as simple as seeing off the new ball for half a session and cashing in thereafter.
The 243 in Indore was a case in point. It did come against Bangladesh and Agarwal hit an Indian record eight sixes, but most of them were well after he had gone past his hundred and pulled the innings into safe territory. For a while, the Bangladesh pacers had had their tails up, and India had gone from 105/1 to 119/3, with the last specialist batting pair in the middle.
Against New Zealand in Mumbai on Friday, India stumbled quicker and harder, from 80/0 to 80/3 in the space of 16 deliveries. The fourth-wicket pair of Agarwal and Shreyas Iyer doubled that score, but even 160/4 wasn’t where India would have wanted to be after winning the toss and choosing to bat first.
In the Bangladesh game, Agarwal was in the form of his life. Things aren’t the same now, but he seemed determined to bat long at Wankhede. Even as Gill began with a flurry of boundaries, Agarwal refused to fiddle with deliveries leaving him outside the off-stump. When he was made to play, he made an attempt to get outside the line of off to rule out the leg-before threat. Even into the evening, his concentration would hold up, as he lunged forward to keep out one of Southee’s change-up incoming deliveries.
Agarwal does tend to get squared up, and was again by Jamieson in the sixth over for an edged four to third man. He did not have much of a trigger movement on that ball, and the bat came down from inside the line. But by the next ball, he had made a slight adjustment, taking a step across and getting behind the line neatly to defend.
ᴍᴏᴍᴇɴᴛ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴀʏ! 👏 👏
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 3, 2021
After the day’s play, he said that he had got tips from Sunil Gavaskar on technique and was making an effort to be more side-on. “He told me that I should consider keeping the bat a bit low initially in my innings,” Agarwal said. “I have a tendency to hold it high. I couldn’t make that adjustment in this short period of time. I noticed his shoulder position and picked up that I need to be more side-on.”
It also helped that the start was delayed by a session. The first one usually helps the pacers the most at Wankhede, and the second one is good for batting before bowlers find some assistance again in the evening.
Once he got in, Agarwal against spin was a treat to watch, as he often is. Mumbai-born left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel picked up all the four wickets to fall, including Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli for ducks. He was finding grip and turn, and occasionally beating the outside edge on front as well as back foot.
But time and again, Agarwal would step out and loft him with the spin to the long-off boundary. He has this particular manner of springing out of the crease, and gathering enough momentum to generate distance with a clean bat-swing, like batsmen of an earlier era had to do when bats weren’t as powerful.
Sixty of his 120 runs came in front of square on the off side, including three sixes against Ajaz. Later, Agarwal would say it was a conscious decision to be aggressive against the left-arm spinner. “He was bowling exceedingly well. But each time anything was in our half, the plan was to be a bit more attacking. Anything that came a little towards us in length, we were going to go for it. He had that phase when he tied us down, so it was a conscious decision to make it count when we could or each time he bowled it in our spot.”
Having already revived the innings twice, Agarwal is not done yet. “The first session (on Day Two) we want to play it out, (as) the wicket is going to get harder and harder to bat on.”
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