India vs South Africa: Mayank Agarwal packs and moves two tons
Had Prithvi Shaw not landed awkwardly on his left ankle during that warm-up match against Cricket Australia XI, Mayank Agarwal’s wait to make his Test debut would have been even longer. Shaw’s injury induced what even becoming the only Indian to score 2000-plus runs in one domestic season couldn’t – a Test debut. Three months shy of his 28th birthday, Agarwal finally got to play for his country, in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, and he marked the occasion with 76 runs in the first innings and there has been no looking back since. Still, despite having notched three fifties in his short career, the wait for a three-figure score was starting to grow, which Agarwal ended in some style in Visakhapatnam on Thursday.
Not only did the opener from Karnataka bring up his first Test century against South Africa before lunch on Day Two (having resumed on an overnight score 84), he went on to, rather majestically, convert that hundred into a double hundred in the following session. When he was dismissed, shortly before tea, his 215-run essay was the third highest score on a maiden hundred by an Indian, after Karun Nair and Vinod Kambli.
On Thursday, he put on a show of complete authority, a chanceless knock played with a straight bat and impeccable timing. For those who have seen Agarwal come into his own in the domestic grind, such maturity and discipline was always expected of him. Just ask Irfan Sait, Agarwal’s first coach.
“He came to me as a 14-year old, and just a few days before he was to play his first league game, he ran into a pole during a fielding session and got a deep cut just below his eye,” says Sait. “We thought he will miss a couple of games but he returned immediately, even though the doctors had advised him not to. With a bandage under his eye, he scored a century.”
Soon, he was an India Under-19 player and not long after, he was a permanent member of the Karnataka first-class side. But unlike his fellow age-groupers like Nair and KL Rahul, the India call-up eluded him. And it must have hurt most after the 2017-18 season, where he scored 1160 runs in the Ranji Trophy and 723 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Across all formats he scored 2141 runs that season.
On Thursday, when asked about that season in the press conference in Vizag, Agarwal attributed his stamina to his physical training. “Long distance running has helped me. When I was training before that season, we made sure we bat for five to six hours,” he said.
“We would have two and half hour sessions take a little break and then bat again. So it is just about preparing in that manner, preparing for those long hours. Combined with long distance running it has helped me.”
Yet, despite the mountain of runs, the national selectors did not dial his phone.
And when the big moment arrived, during West Indies’ India tour of 2018, Agarwal got to warm the India bench, from where he watched a much younger Shaw score a hundred on debut and also walk away with the Man of the Series award. He wasn’t originally picked for the subsequent tour of Australia, but following Shaw’s injury and Agarwal’s impressive tally of 195 runs (at an average of 65) in India’s historic series win Down Under, the team management must have known that they had found themselves an opener with mettle.
“Luck has played a role not once but two times for him in Australia,” says Sait. “Long back, in his first match for the India Under-19 team, he was bowled off the first delivery in Hobart. Luckily, the bails did not come off and he went on to score 161.”
That story should also tell you that once Agarwal is set, he goes on to score big runs -- daddy hundreds, or, like on Thursday, double hundreds. When he was just 14 or 15, he scored a double hundred in a private T20 tournament. The journalists wouldn’t believe that a kid as young as him could get a double in a T20 and thought the 30-yard circle must’ve been the boundary,” says Sait. “I told them that there were 150 players in that tournament and Agarwal was the only one to get a hundred, let alone a double.”
When Agarwal brought up his Test double hundred today, Sunil Gavaskar credited the batsman’s temperament on-air. “It is about the mental space that he is in which has helped him gain in confidence. It’s the (same) thing that KL Rahul is lacking,” said Gavaskar.
A self-confessed Virender Sehwag fan, Agarwal too was often criticised for playing one too many shots at the start of his innings and getting out cheaply. But luckily for him, he fast realised that he could stay on the selector’s radar only if he could score big consistently.
“When he was getting out early for Karnataka, the amount of practice he did was impressive,” says Sait. “He is obsessed about perfection. He puts in hours and hours of practice perfecting his technique.
“All those hours of toiling away in the nets, in the Ranji Trophy, in Vijay Hazare, in Syed Mushtaq Ali has only made him very strong mentally,” adds Sait. “He got his chance late but he is more than making it count now.”
VVS Laxman perhaps summed it up best when he, seated in the broadcaster’s studio, said that Agarwal is now the poster-boy for not-giving-up. “For players like Priyank Panchal and Abhimnayu Easwran, who are scoring tons of runs in domestic cricket and yet not getting a chance in the Indian team, Mayank is a great example to follow,” said Laxman.
For a player who is featuring in just his fifth Test match, it is a great compliment. But Agarwal’s smile, as he walked back to the pavilion, revealed that he had earned it, with a whole lot of perseverance and a little bit of luck.