Making of Mayank Agarwal
Sometime in April 2017, Mayank Agarwal was chatting with Ramesh Mane, or Mane Kaka as the long-time masseur and mentor of the Indian team was fondly called by the players. It was during the IPL and Mane Kaka was with the Royal Challengers Bangalore, Agarwal’s team.
“It’s my dream, sapna hai, to play for India, kaka. I know I have to work on my mental side of the game and I am willing to do anything that can help me.” Mane Kaka remembers telling him that it’s the “law of nature that you will seek what you get”.
“And then I gave him the book The Power Of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy, an expert on the subject. Mayank soaked it all up — jo bolte hain na juice nikaal diya — and he would keep having chats with me on it. His father, I think, had told him to take up Vipassana, the ancient Buddhist meditative practice, and that too played a big part in calming his mind. He was already a tremendously hardworking boy and with the efforts he started on the mental side of his game, I knew it was a matter of time before he would play for India,” Mane told The Indian Express on the day Agarwal starred with a double ton to push India to a mammoth total before Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja sent shivers down the spine of South African batting unit, which wobbled to 39/3 by the end of the second day.
Mane, who runs an acupuncture and physiotherapy clinic in Mumbai these days, was a happy man.
Back at his Bangalore home, Agarwal’s mother Suchitra Singh was fidgeting with her set-top box. She had just been informed that her son had reached a double hundred and she began to replay that moment from the recording she had started at the start of the day. Suchitra doesn’t watch the match live when her son is playing — “I can never watch him live!” — and enjoyed the moment.
The only condition she and her husband Anurag put on their son, she says, was that he would ensure he got 50 -60 per cent in exams and progress to the next class. “We never stopped him from playing when he was young. We didn’t know the ABC of the game but his school coach was impressed and wanted him to take up the game seriously. We just let him follow his dream,” Suchitra told this newspaper.
When Agarwal was scorching left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj with a series of inside-out lofted hits, his former Ranji coach J Arunkumar was smiling at home. It looked as if it was a natural shot, such was the ease and control, but Arunkumar knew the phase when Agarwal would repeatedly lose his wicket to left-arm spinners in domestic cricket.
“He had only an attacking response and that too the heave to the leg side against the left-armer. Sometimes he would step out but would hole out to long-off or wherever,” Arunkumar recalls.
The pair worked on strengthening Agarwal’s defence against left-arm spin to start with. “Simple stuff, getting left-arm spinners to bowl on a roughed-up surface and him batting on and on against them, tightening his defence. Slowly, he grew in confidence about that part of his game which helped him attack better as now he was in better control and could choose his shots carefully.”
Agarwal would not only work at it in Ranji nets but also take it forward with his long-time personal coach RX Murali.
“Then the attacking options and rotating-strike shots on the off-side were worked upon. Those inside-out shots, for example, the use of wrists. And the pushes and dabs into gaps. Also, I would make him play the drives from the crease. Not just to stop him from running down the track without a game plan but also help him get better control over his drives: now he had to stretch forward and across, get the wrists working to keep the ball in the gaps or loft it if he is in full control,” Arunkumar says. “I was watching the match and was marvelling at how he made all those off-side shots look so natural – because it has become natural now for him.”
In the past, Agarwal has talked about how his long-distance running has helped his endurance levels to play long innings and on Thursday, he also spoke about how he would bat for hours and hours with Murali. “I would bat for two-and-a-half hours, take a break, and then start again.” All that has helped him play long knocks like this.
Another man who was watching Agarwal’s knock closely was his former Ranji captain, ex-India seamer R Vinay Kumar.
He too was impressed with Agarwal’s shots against the left-arm spinners. “I remember there was a time I told him, ‘Mayank, you have to improve your batting against left-arm spinners, and spinners in general. All the teams have now started to use them against you and even if they have a long-off, they know you will give him a catch and get out.’ He took it on board and worked hard with his coaches and has turned things around.”
Vinay, in fact, played a key role in turning around Agarwal’s career at its lowest phase. In 2017, Agarwal had a very lean patch in the domestic season and it was speculated that he would be dropped for a Ranji Trophy game against Maharashtra in Pune. Vinay remembers telling the youngster not to worry, that he would back him, and he would play that game. “He thought he would be dropped but I knew his talent and value to the team. I told him just think of this as a fresh start, forget the past, ‘you are too good to keep failing’. Also, as a captain, I tend to worry if a batsman gets starts and then throws them away. That sometimes tells about the temperament and approach. Mayank that season was getting out cheaply, he hadn’t spent any time in the middle and it was not as if he was throwing his wickets. There were some good balls too.”
Agarwal hit a triple hundred that game and last year, after making his India debut, he had publicly shared that he had called Vinay to thank him for not dropping him for that Maharashtra game in 2017 and how it helped his turnaround.
“Since then, he has improved in all aspects of his game. The skills were always there but even there he improved his all-round game. Then the mental side of it. Then I think very importantly, his fitness too,” Vinay says. “When you are fit, your mental strength improves. Physical tiredness can tire you mentally too – and that’s why all the bad shots come. Like he would make lovely 40s and get out. He worked hard on his fitness and everything began to fall in place.”
Agarwal’s Ranji team-mate Robin Uthappa too remembered the lean days and how it used to affect him. “There was a lot of talk about him just being a limited-overs batsman and Mayank was getting restless. He used to take failure to heart. He was highly energetic and very excitable as a character, he has now learnt to calm down in the middle, have a routine of sorts, and all that has helped him mellow down, and focus better … He worked really hard at his game. The trigger movement, in particular, was revamped. The front foot used to come across, and create problems for him: the head was moving but he has a really stable base now. He thinks a lot about his game.”
Just one final piece of puzzle was left. He had already transformed from an energetic youngster to a calmer version who was in control of his mind but he would still obsess about his game. Enter Rahul Dravid, who was the India A coach last year. Dravid felt that Agarwal wasn’t able to manage his mental energy well as he was perhaps over-thinking about his game which caused mental fatigue. That he was putting too much pressure on himself as a result.
Agarwal eased off after that, rather learnt how to switch on and off from the game, and as runs began to pile up, the Indian selectors had to finally relent.