On Day 1 of Mumbai Test, ton-up Agarwal reiterated his own opening credentials, stealing a march ahead of his immediate competitors and ensued that the faith reposed in him by the management wasn't without justification
KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal’s cricketing careers have been inextricably intertwined since the mid-2000s, when they cut their teeth as starry-eyed teens in age-group competitions in Bengaluru. The two right-handers stacked up runs by the bushel, first catching the eye of the state junior selectors and then winning the nod of their national counterparts to open the batting for the country at the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand in 2010.
With Rahul, it was mostly a question of when rather than whether he would graduate to the senior India colours. He was clearly the more gifted, but mixed his unquestioned talent with the ability to grind out long innings. Agarwal had the reputation of being a bit of a dasher, in the Virender Sehwag mould, his game more suited to the slap-dash white-ball versions.
Unsurprisingly, Rahul was the first to break through, on the 2014-15 tour of Australia. In only his second Test, at the SCG, he announced his arrival with a classy century, triggering the hope that he was the answer to India’s prayers for a steady opening partner to M Vijay.
Agarwal took his time joining his great mate in the Indian side. He reignited a career that threatened a ‘what-might-have-been’ script with an incredible 1,000 first-class runs in November 2017, though it wasn’t until 13 months later that he would find favour with the senior national selectors.
It was only midway through the tour of Australia in 2018-19, with Prithvi Shaw yet to recover from injury and Rahul going off the boil, that Agarwal was summoned to the Test set-up. If he was fazed by 80,000-plus spectators at the sprawling MCG, he made a sensational job of concealing it, backing up match-winnings efforts of 76 and 42 on debut (which came at the expense of Rahul) with 77 in the next game at the SCG.
He firmed up his status in seven weeks in October-November 2019, unleashing scores of 215, 7, 108, 10, 243 and 14 against South Africa and Bangladesh at home. Rahul was a forgotten entity, Agarwal was the in-thing, having struck up a fabulous opening tandem with the born-again Rohit Sharma, reincarnated as a Test opener.
Who would have thought that, a year and a quarter later, Agarwal would be on the outer, desperately seeking form and confidence. Since making 34 and 58 against New Zealand in the first of two Tests in Wellington in February 2020, his career went on an inexorable tailspin. He was dismissed for single-digit scores in seven of his next eight innings – in New Zealand and Australia – and was quickly put out to pasture.
Only the need for an extended squad owing to bio-bubble restrictions facilitated Agarwal’s inclusion for the tour of England earlier this summer. By this time, Rahul had gone out of reckoning as opening batsman, the team management convinced that his future lay only in the middle-order. Rohit and Shubman Gill were the first-choice openers, but when the latter was ruled out with shin splints, Agarwal eyed an opportune lifeline.
Set to open the batting in Nottingham, he was struck on the helmet at nets the day before the game and ruled out through concussion. Rahul snuck back in as opener and hasn’t looked back. Time, destiny and cruel luck had conspired to deal Agarwal an unkind cut.
Or had they?
A thigh strain to Rahul — who else?! — ruled the original choice out of the two-Test home series against New Zealand, and Agarwal was back in the mix. It was up to him now to keep himself relevant, to ward off the burgeoning threat of a host of other contenders for the opening slot — Shaw, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Abhimanyu Easwaran, Devdutt Padikkal, Priyank Panchal and Gill himself, all forced to play second fiddle to Rohit and Rahul.
Agarwal did his chances no good with 13 and 17 in Kanpur. Old failings came back to haunt him — leading with the left foot ahead of the upper body rather than the top, left hand, which meant he was playing the pacers on the move and opening himself up to catches in the slip cordon. His confidence seemed shot, his usual fidgetiness amplified by the poor returns.
How he managed to turn things around in a matter of three days, and without any outdoor practice, is little short of remarkable. A chance encounter with Sunil Gavaskar in their Kanpur hotel, and voluntary words of wisdom from the master, lent a new perspective, and the Agarwal who fronted up at the Wankhede on Friday was unrecognisable from the nervy, uncertain avatar of the previous week.
In Mumbai, Agarwal batted from excellent memory, sure of where his off-stump was, disciplining himself enough to let balls sail by from Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson early in the piece, and playing a lot closer to the body even if the left-foot-first movement was noticeable early on. As he spent three-quarters of an hour in the middle, the fluency returned visibly. His footwork against spinners of all ilk, and especially the dangerous left-arm spin of Ajaz Patel, was exemplary, whether it was in skipping down and hitting fearlessly over the top or going deep, making his own length and putting the ball behind square on either side with impunity.
Agarwal needed his fourth Test ton as much for himself as for his team, which went from the comfort of 80 without loss to 80 for three in the bat of an eyelid. Unbeaten on 120 at close on day one, he has steered his side to 221 for four on a surface that will only get more difficult for batting. More importantly, he has reiterated his own opening credentials, stealing a march ahead of his immediate competitors and ensuring that the faith reposed in him by the selectors and the team management isn’t without justification.
He will have to bide his time when Rohit and Rahul return but for now, Agarwal is the first among the equals behind them. Who would have thought that at the beginning of Friday?
R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelancer who has been writing on cricket for 30 years. He has reported on more than 100 Test matches and is the co-author of VVS Laxman's autobiography, 281 And Beyond.
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