Two years to this date, Mayank Agarwal had little idea he would be representing the Indian national team in under a week’s time.
After missing out on selection for the Australia tour, all that was in his mind was to help Karnataka clinch that elusive Ranji Trophy title they’d come so close to winning just over six months ago. Yet as fate would have it, Agarwal would find himself opening the batting for India just over a week later, on Boxing Day, in front of 60,000 fans after being flown in as an emergency injury replacement for Prithvi Shaw.
Chaos was what Agarwal walked into. With the series on the line, tied at 1-1, he was thrown into the line of fire at the expense of both the incumbents KL Rahul and Murali Vijay, and was paired alongside a two-Test old Hanuma Vihari, who’d previously never opened the batting. An opportunist of the highest order, Agarwal embraced the chaos, treated it as a ladder and used it as a platform to catapult himself to greater heights.
Two years on, Agarwal hasn’t had to catch hasty flights, or think about if he’d ever get to play, but his situation, despite being different, is pretty much the same: he will be walking into chaos. With less than 48 hours to go for the curtain-raiser in Adelaide, Agarwal still doesn’t know who he will be opening with. So far in his 11-Test career, the Karnataka man has already had 4 different opening partners, and if the warm-up game against Australia A at the SCG is to have any significance, then he will, in all likelihood, be looking at a fifth new partner come Thursday.
Yet while some would view such disconcerting situations as a window of opportunity to vindicate themselves should the dreaded worst case scenario come to life, Agarwal has, time and again, construed such episodes as an opportune occasion to put his hand up. Awaiting him on Thursday will be one such opportunity, and if there’s one thing that he’s shown in his 11-Test career thus far, it’s that he will be prepared to put to practice years of vipassana to blur out everything in his peripheral vision and make the chaos his comfort zone.
It is to Agarwal’s credit that in just two years time, he’s transformed from a rookie making his way from domestic cricket into a seasoned pro held in the same regard as the other seniors in the side. Such is the confidence Agarwal inspires, and such is the faith the management have in him, that, despite having played less than a dozen Tests, he is envisioned as a core member destined to take the country forward. And his meteoric rise, propelled by determination as much as his performances, has seen him become a thorough part of the leadership group in the longest format.
But approaching the opener is a challenge unlike any other - his biggest one yet.
For the first time in his career, Agarwal will enter a tour as a senior batsman with heavy expectations resting on his shoulders. No longer the greenhorn finding his feet at the highest level, or the under-the-radar junior thriving amidst veterans, Agarwal will be under the pump from ball one, something which became evidently clear across the two hit-outs he had at the SCG last week. And those two knocks, in a way, exhibited everything right and wrong Agarwal has done as an opener in overseas conditions, to date.
The right came in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal in the first innings. Led by Sean Abbott, the Australia A seamers relentlessly tested him in the channel outside off-stump and it took all of five deliveries for the hosts to get the better of the opener. However, Agarwal would then spend an hour and more in the nets righting the wrongs, in the supervision of Kohli, and significantly curb out his tendency to fish in the second innings, scoring a hard-fought, gritty fifty.
But he would then go on to undo all his hard work within moments, inexplicably slashing an innocuous half-volley outside off-stump to the fielder at deep point, reminiscent of his dismissal in Kings XI Punjab’s first encounter against Delhi Capitals in IPL 2020.
Mayank’s dismissal in the second innings gave a fleeting glance of the one quality that has hindered his thus-far-young overseas career that, by now, should have reached far greater heights than it actually has: hastiness. In his very second Test, batting on 77, he squandered an opportunity to make it big by holing out to long on and he had similar lapses of concentrations after getting starts versus both the Windies and the Kiwis, where he perished trying to cut and hook despite being in no position to do so. Luckily for the side only one of those three miscalculations proved to be costly, but there will be no such guarantees come Decembet 17.
Why there won’t be any guarantees is because, contrary to popular belief, Australia has proved to be one of the toughest countries for visiting openers to bat in, of late. Since 2017, visiting openers have averaged a meagre 28.04 Down Under and have only managed 10 fifty-plus scores, fewer than both England (12) and New Zealand (17). These are figures which are, in fact, inflated by Alastair Cook’s 244*, sans which the average of visiting openers drops to 24.17. Thus while Agarwal might have gotten away with fifties, sixties and seventies in the past, cashing in on starts and batting long will be vitally important for India’s chances, particularly with Kohli slated to miss the last three Tests.
Luckily for India and Agarwal, though, he belongs to the rarest of rare breeds that knows how to bat long; whose hunger never dissipates. Two of his three Test centuries, albeit at home, have turned into double-tons and it was not so long ago that he was notching doubles and triples on qthe domestic circuit. But the challenge for him will lie in replicating his feats away from home, in tough conditions, something he’s not managed to do just yet.
And this is where Agarwal will hope for the good traits of his to come to his aid: his boundless desire to improve and his inclination to be a better version of himself tomorrow. It was these two attributes that helped him eschew throwing his bat outside off-stump in the second innings at the SCG last week, and the same traits which have seen him grow strength to strength and tick every box by the passing year. These were also the characteristics which finally enabled him to have a breakthrough IPL season which did justice to his talent, a decade after initially bursting into the scene.
Whether Agarwal can has never been in question; it’s whether he will. Can he? Will he? The suspense will be shattered in a month’s time. For now, he will closely be watching the chaos around him unravel all by itself, whilst he aims to take guard with a clear vision.