Well before Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir stepped onto the field as the openers, India’s struggle with openers in the longest format was well-documented, with several openers tried and tested. And since they left, the problem has not just resurfaced but continued to haunt the management.
December 26, 2018 - Test Cap No. 295, a smiling Mayank Agarwal received the cap from Ravi Shastri and the entire Indian team were in a big cheer in front of a packed holiday crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for Australia’s biggest day of the year - Boxing Day Test.
To add more context to his debut, he walked out to open alongside makeshift opener Hanuma Vihari after India’s incumbents - Murali Vijay and KL Rahul failed in the series. He was thrown into the open, like a lamb in front of a pack of lions, who were visibly hungry to win the series. Out he emerged victorious, as a hero and on his way, also became the second highest-scorer for openers debuting in away Tests, just behind Sudhir Naik, with 76 on debut at the MCG.
The crowd were clearly intimidating him or at least trying to, for the first session of the day but as the day progressed, it became more and more clear that it was him, who was intimidating the crowd. The Australian fans saw enough of him on that day, which instilled a fear - the very same way he took the attack to their lead spinner, Nathan Lyon.
Everything about the domestic cricket giant made him likeable, his vigour, valour, technique, and especially his appetite for runs and that pretty much sealed Murali Vijay’s career as an opener. In the 2017-18 domestic season, he made 2253 runs in 36 innings across formats, which only went on to show that his debut was no overnight success and definitely his innings, not a ‘fluke’.
“You were performing in first-class matches in a dominating way. That is something always stood out with you, I would say your character stood out for me than the number of runs. I knew you would be fearless without having any baggage," Kohil told Mayank in a video about his selection for the first time.
While both Rohit Sharma and Mayank featured in that Test, ahead of the third Test in 2021, only one will feature this time around - Rohit Sharma. Just post his brilliant debut, Mayank has more or less sealed his place as the numero uno opener in the Indian whites. And the reason?
In just two innings, in conditions which are vastly different from the pitches in Bengaluru, Mayank stomped his feet and made a sweeping statement - with 195 runs in three innings, at an average of 65. While the average rarely mattered, his gritty nature, his ability to counter the opposition and create ample pressure against the hosts made him an immediate fan favourite.
Going into the 2020-21 series against the same opponent, the Karnataka opener had made quite a serious journey, and by serious - we mean it! While he did have a rough patch against the Windies away from home, it wasn’t really a take-off wicket for the openers. But when he returned back to familiar boundaries in India, his run tally took off like stocks of a miracle worker. From being a debutant, he slowly yet steadily stomped his authority, earning the appreciation from all corners of the country to becoming a fan favourite. With that, Mayank had arrived and laid a mark on where his legacy would begin - the South African series.
Innings after innings, alongside Rohit Sharma, the Karnataka opener left an indelible impression on the Indian team, the management, who were in awe of the opener. So much so that there were talks of Virat Kohli chanting his name in his sleep, well jokes apart, Mayank had scored twin double-centuries at home in the span of four innings to cement a legacy for himself. He never looked back seemingly, never unperturbed by the talks of being the new Virender Sehwag in the outfit, all that he wanted to ever do is - perform!
Like a chopping machine, the right-hander picked up his bat, cut the edges and left a mark in the middle. By the time India were visiting the Kiwi shores, he was already destined to become the opener for the biggest test - Australia. His life nearly completed an entire circle when he walked out and felt the sun screaming at him Down Under. By then he wasn’t just hailed as a talent but also proclaimed as the best opener produced by the nation this decade. Don’t ask about the logic behind comparison but ask about the man who was making the headlines.
He wasn’t just another act in the Indian chapter, at least not anymore; he was the headline act across the country. There was not a single person who didn’t recognise his strokes, his name, and more importantly, his smile that always accompanied the runs. So when he walked out to open in the first Test at the Adelaide Oval, he was the senior opener walking alongside the youngster Prithvi Shaw. Shaw failed, Mayank did too but rather was undone by a brilliant delivery from Pat Cummins in the first innings when he was on 17.
In the second innings, he was just another failure in a collective Indian batting failure but still topped the score with nine. The fingers could have pointed anywhere and it did, as Shaw received the boot for the second Test at the MCG. The same ground that gave him a life in 2018, it was threatening to be his time clock, as the news sprung like fire in the country that Rohit Sharma was back. In the second Test, his backlift caught the attention in what was a real bad Test from him, with 0 and 5 but never enough to replace all the hard work that he had done in the past.
Rohit was always going to be in the scheme of things - not for his runs but rather for his experience. The 33-year-old was just recovering from an injury, hadn’t played in away conditions in more than two years, and certainly hadn’t played any Test cricket since the turn of the year. So it was always going to be a gamble and that coincided with Mayank’s failure meant there was no turning back for the management.
Despite the immense talks of the management imbibing their faith in continuity - for the second Test in a row, they certainly did everything that was not assured to the players. First Shaw, then Saha, then Pant and now Mayank, Indian cricket fell in their own verbal trap. While away from home, Rohit has superiority over Mayank in terms of runs scored, it has always come at the tail end of the batting order.
The 33-year-old was never considered as an opener before the home season, the same home season where Mayank overshadowed him. But in the span of a fortnight, the Indian cricket team’s landscape went a dramatic change and Mayank was booted out of the playing XI, despite still averaging 27.20 as an opener, with an average of 32.28 against Australia.
It wasn’t just that, it was a break of trust - one that the Indian team were hell-bent on not breaking, at least going by their vocal enunciation. Within the blink of an eye, Mayank was out; Rohit was named in the playing XI - and there continuity, far away in the MCG’s glaring seats sits smiling and later seen crying not because it was surprising but because it knew all of this was inevitable and coming.
Assiduous Mayank Agarwal should be hard-done-by with the snub and there are no two ways about it, because of his recent twin failures, his first since the start of his Test career. While the Sydney showers will ensure continuity, the shadows at the MCG will paint a rather bleak and different picture.