Mayank Agarwal was hurting at the start of the 2017-18 domestic calendar. He had a sparkling start to the previous season, finishing second on the run-scorers’ list in the season-opening Duleep Trophy with 420 runs from three matches. However, a tally of 284 runs from 13 innings in Ranji Trophy and 251 runs from seven innings in Vijay Hazare Trophy meant the year, once again, had been below-par.
At 26, and standing on the cusp of the ever-widening gulf between promise and performance, the Karnataka batsman found himself in front of his coach RX Murali. They had worked on his balance and exaggerated front-foot shuffle for the 2016-17 season, but issues with consistency persisted.
"We decided we need to do something different. We did a lot of situation-based training to help my game-awareness and self-awareness. We didn’t talk about technique much," says Mayank.
Murali, who has been coaching Mayank for three years now, explains the method.
"I realised we were talking too much about technique, and Mayank was a bit obsessive about these things — where’s my front foot going, where’s my elbow leading and stuff. We knew he had the technique to last — most players at this level do — but that big season was not coming. We knew we had to change something. We decided to get out of this circle of dissecting technique and do more situation and skill-based training."
Mayank faced 500 balls each day on turf, cement, matting and artificial turf wickets, and long hours spent on surfaces that behaved differently to different balls strengthened his muscle memory. The coaching paradigm was also turned on its head; instead of the player posing questions to the coach, Murali ensured it was he who sought answers from his ward.
"I stopped talking and began asking questions. He faced 500 balls each day, and we talked only after a gap of 100 balls. I told him to think of me as an opposition, and find his own way. So I didn’t do anything apart from asking questions. It made a lot of difference."
Among the major criticisms of Mayank going into this season was his tendency to get reckless after a blazing start. He would invariably go after balls he could have left, and lose his wicket. Murali decided not to tamper with his attacking mindset and instead opted for what he calls is a 'meditative approach' to batting.
"I never told him to leave the ball outside off-stump. Instead, I asked him to play the ball on the stumps, which is essentially same as leaving balls outside off, but a more positive way of doing it. If you are too focussed on leaving balls, chances are that when an overpitched ball arrives, you might not be ready to put it away. We made sure his natural, attacking game was not compromised. That’s a meditative approach. It’s all about creating and following good mental patterns.
"We decided to calibrate the progression of his innings with the number of balls he faced, and not by the runs he scored. Playing balls is a process; runs are an outcome of that process. Thankfully, Mayank responded very well," explains Murali.
The right-hander also put himself to a rigorous four-day-a-week long-distance running programme that not only built his endurance and leg-strength, but also conditioned his mind to push him for that extra effort.
"I made it a point to run alone because it is boring and there is this temptation to give up. I wanted to challenge myself and train my mind to never give up."
After months of grind, it was time to put the new method and mindset to test. Karnataka opened their campaign against Assam in Mysore and Mayank contributed 31 in his team’s innings-and-121-run win. They next played Hyderabad and Shimoga, and Mayank failed to open his account in each innings.
The ignominy of bagging a pair hurt, but it also steeled Mayank to dispel the gloom.
"Getting a pair was a terrible feeling. I told myself that I don’t want to have this feeling again and I won’t let it affect me. That was the worst that could have happened. In an odd sort of way, it liberated me of the fear of failure," he told Firstpost.
Mayank responded with an unbeaten 304 in the next match, against Maharashtra — an innings that turned his season around.
"The triple hundred was the turning point for me, for it gave me a lot of confidence and belief. I didn’t stop or relax after getting a hundred. I knew I had to make it count. It’s a funny game, and you ought to make the most of it when you are in form. That feeling of bagging a pair was at the back of my mind and I wanted to get rid of it by scoring heavily," he says.
The shift in mindset ensured Mayank built that innings by virtue of the number of balls faced. The thought of 'scoring' was left to instincts and the focus was on playing "50 balls at a time."
"Honestly, I never thought of scoring a triple. I played about 200 balls to get the hundred, and thereafter I built my innings by blocks of 50 balls, making sure the intensity never dropped. The triple certainly got the monkey off the back."
The monumental effort woke up a sleeping giant. Four centuries came in next three matches; three of them in consecutive innings, two in the same match against Railways. For a batsman who had waited four years for a 1000-run season, 1033 runs arrived in the first 27 days of November alone. He topped the Ranji Trophy batting charts with five hundreds and 1160 runs scored at a barely-believable average of 105.45. He had entered the proverbial zone that batsmen gloat about.
"I guess entering the zone has a lot to do with confidence and self-belief. It’s a feeling, an assurance and an understanding of your game that all comes together and puts you in that space," he says.
"I was not expecting this kind of a season, especially after the way it started. I am really glad and grateful that it panned out the way it did. It was a top, top season."
His rich form continued in the List A Vijay Hazare Trophy, for which he prepared his body with some heavy-duty power training. Long-distance runs were replaced by brutal circuit-based training, and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
Mayank scored a tournament-record 723 runs, in the process playing a stellar role in Karnataka’s title win. He also broke Sachin Tendulkar’s record of most runs in a List A tournament, going past the 673 runs that Tendulkar scored at the 2003 World Cup.
"It’s always a nice feeling to go past such landmarks, but frankly I didn’t think of them while batting. I came to know of such things through others, and it was, of course, a nice feeling," he remembers.
Murali has an interesting tale to narrate that reveals Mayank’s philosophical wisdom towards success and failure.
"We were just looking at his scoring chart of Ranji Trophy the other day, and he said those two zeroes look like blank eyes overlooking those tall scores. It's poignant. He understands failures are important too, and he knows to tackle them."
In the zone and with that Zen-like equilibrium, Mayank Agarwal continues to make the right noises. It could be a matter of time before he is heard by those who matter.