Sidharth Monga in Melbourne
Destiny works in its own funny ways. And you can’t be a successful cricketer without some luck here and there. Until about a week ago, Mayank Agarwal was unlucky to have missed out on selection for the tour of Australia, having worked his way into the squad for the home series against West Indies but being omitted without even getting an audition. You wondered if he’d have to repeat his feats of November 2017, when he scored more than 1000 first-class runs in a month.
An instant comparison was state-mate Karun Nair, who had been with the squad for a long time but then made way for a new batsman brought in – Hanuma Vihari, who had scored a lot of runs in the meantime. In the case of Agarwal, he lost out to the experience of M Vijay and the promise of another Karnataka team-mate, KL Rahul. The third opener was a lock. Many fans would have expected Prithvi Shaw to emulate the man he bats like, Virender Sehwag. Boxing Day was supposed to be the day for Shaw, on arguably the flattest Test track in the world, in front of 70,000, to make a statement like Sehwag did with his 195 back in 2003-04.
Destiny has its own plans, though. Shaw injured himself in the warm-up game for this Test series. Shaw’s promise is perhaps why the team desperately wanted to hang on to him, before finally accepting the inevitable: that he was not going to recover in time for Melbourne. Meanwhile, Vijay and Rahul played themselves out by failing in the most difficult conditions in the series.
Seeing my Best Friend getting his cap and debuting for the Country makes me so Happy and Proud today.
Upwards and Onwards my brother, you’re just getting started Monkus. @mayankcricket
— K L Rahul (@klrahul11) December 26, 2018
This is not to discredit Agarwal’s runs in any way. He would have just as gladly fronted up in Perth. It is just that a man who was unfortunate not long ago was now the fortunate one. Agarwal has not had it easy. He has had to shrug off the reputation of being a white-ball specialist. He had to wait, and wait some more, even as other openers continued to fail. And then handle the disappointment of getting within touching distance of a Test cap and then losing out on it.
This can be difficult to handle for someone as full of beans as Agarwal is reputed to be, but his way of dealing with it has been remarkably professional. “Well I was very happy when I got picked against West Indies,” Agarwal said. “It was a big moment for me. From then on, it’s not in my hands. Deciding whether I am going to play or not or getting picked or not is not in my hands. But the good thing was that there was a lot of domestic cricket, and a lot of India A games. So, you make sure you go out there and play to our best. Once you keep playing, you know those things don’t keep coming to your mind because you are focusing on that game and trying to win that game for the side.
“You are a professional and you move ahead, move on and see what’s next for you, prepare for that and once you are in, give your best.”
When one’s next assignment is to walk out in front of a big Boxing Day Test and try to get your side some sort of a start after an abysmal year for the openers, it is not quite easy to be prepared. “It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that,” Agarwal said. “It wasn’t easy to get hold of those emotions and focus there but it was needed to be done. I just stuck to my plans and just kept telling myself, ‘There is a plan that I have go through, and I am just going to stick to that.’ Even though it was overwhelming, it was good and I am happy with the way I started.”
The way he started might not earn him comparisons with Sehwag, but there were shades of it. Agarwal likes to stay besides the line of the ball and forces it through the off side. It was difficult on day one to tie him down, even though Australia bowled pretty well on a pitch with not much assistance for them by way of movement. When his opening partner, Vihari – pushed out of his comfort zone as a middle-order batsman – got stuck at the wicket, it was Agarwal who kept releasing the pressure.
Australia made a comeback by keeping the scoring rate in check, but Agarwal did set the tone. The knack of scoring through the off side quickly took him to 21 off 23. Even on a flat pitch, there are nerves around when your openers have scored 95 runs in eight innings between them. The Nos 3, 4 and 5 are always on their toes. Just to send them a message they could relax was important. Agarwal did that. And, at the first sighter of Nathan Lyon, India’s tormentor this series, he unleashed a cover-drive that Virat Kohli would be proud of.
Kohli and co now have a solid base to take off from. Agarwal, 76 runs on his debut and bitterly disappointed at not scoring a big one, has something nobody can ever take away from him: India’s Test cap number 295.