Have you seen the movie Million Dollar Arm in which an American coach scouts around for a baseball pitcher for his NBL club? The coach searches for that one guy whose pitch is express fast and could produce a peculiar thud in the keeper’s glove, a thud reminiscent of the greats. And there he encounters an Indian arm, whose pitch sounds so musical to his ears that it wakes him from his slumber.
Similarly, in that context, if the selectors were to pick one batsman (on current form) listening to sweet sound coming from the meat of the blade, Karnataka’s Mayank Agarwal would have been a unanimous choice. The 27-year-old has been in such divine form that he has racked up close to 2,000 runs this domestic season, with eight hundreds across all formats. And now the situation has come down to the level where opposition teams have reconciled with his prolificness and consequently now only making plans for other batsmen in the team.
On Wednesday, during the quarterfinal of the Vijay Hazare Trophy at the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi, it was Hyderabad’s turn to experience Agarwal’s voracious appetite for runs. He extended his purple patch into the semifinals with a sublime eighth hundred (140 off 111 balls) and produced a mammoth 242-run stand with R Samarth (125) for the second wicket, powering Karnataka to 347. In reply, Hyderabad did produce a couple of stands but none carrying the weight to outdo Karnataka, falling short by 103 runs.
Even though, Hyderabad spearhead and India pacer Mohammad Siraj (5/59) sent Karnataka skipper Karun Nair back to the dressing room in the 4th over, the bowling looked ordinary against a solid Agarwal. The calculated assault highlighted the healthy frame of mind Agarwal has been carrying throughout the season. It is that kind of patch where he can score hundreds even with a rod.
“I am very happy the way I’m batting. I’m in a good mindset and that is something I want to carry as long as I can, said a happy Agarwal after the game. “I look to see the ball minutely and middle every ball. As long that is happening, the rest is automatically taken care of. I’m just taking it ball by ball and not thinking too much,” he said.
Conversion has always been a talking point in Agarwal’s case. Till last year, he had consumed the same number of innings in the Ranji Trophy and had scored just 284 runs. Thrice he scored fifties but couldn’t reach three figures. In the fifty-overs format, the returns were even meager; 251 runs in seven innings. Come this year, Agarwal seems to have ironed out all his problems.
In the Ranji Trophy this year, in 13 innings he has crossed fifty 7 times and converted five of those into triple figures. Similarly, his account in Vijay Hazare boasts of over 550 runs with three hundreds and two fifties. At this level, it is usually difficult to overcome certain things in your batting approach but Agarwal has left no stone unturned to take his showing to the next level.
Sample his success mantra. “I haven’t made a lot of technical tweaks but during the pre-season with RX Murli sir... He put me through a lot of situation-based training. That created a lot of awareness within me as to how to tackle things my way. There is a little secret to that. RX Murali sir and I have put in a plan for the post 15 overs to 40 overs or the middle overs. We have set a little target which I look to achieve and because of which consistency has followed,” said Agarwal.
Hearing through the horse’s mouth makes much sense. A look at Karnataka’s group matches shows how Agarwal has followed that plan to perfection. In all the five games he has scored in, Agarwal made sure that he, alongside a set partner, is maintaining a run-rate of over 5.75 to 6 an over. Against Hyderabad, they nearly touched 7 in the 15-40 period.
Although known for his attacking nature, Agarwal hasn’t been rash. That is another facet of being in the zone and how it helps you to pick the right ball for the right stroke. Agarwal’s wagon wheel will attest to that. He has broadened his V and all his big shots have ranged from long-on to long-off. He stepped out to left-arm spinner Mehdi Hasan twice to plonk him over his head for biggies, shots which he rated highly in Wednesday’s knock.
“The two sixes that I hit off Mehedi Hassan, I had not reached the pitch of the ball but still executed them to perfection. That is confidence,” Agarwal says.
There is a thin line between confidence and maturity. Agarwal, currently is a healthy mix of both. Batting with a more subdued partner in R Samarth, an understanding of his own game and adjusting to his tells a lot about his growth. Interestingly, they both played together as openers since their school days, graduating to the senior Karnataka side.
“If there is one thing that I have to say that has helped me is the awareness. I’m a lot more aware of my thoughts. It’s maturity. I’m not trying to follow anyone but I have figured out my way of playing the game,” he said.
“I’m being more aware of my thoughts and game. Also understanding my game better has helped me. In the past year and a half, I understand my strengths better, where I can get more runs, my boundary strokes, what is running in my mind, whether I’m too eager or getting complacent or feeling pressure. All of that has helped me,” Agarwal said.
Complacency is a by-product of form and harmful too. Agarwal is composed and keeps it at bay. “When I understand I am over-eager, I talk to myself that there are still 40-odd overs left to be played. Stroke play depends on wicket to wicket. As an opener you give yourself a little time to understand the conditions and decide what kind of strokes you can play. And in 50 overs, there are phases where you know you are going to get as many runs as you want and you pick your bowler. So you have plenty of time and there is no need of high-risk batting,” he said.
The way he is performing, it will be very difficult for the selectors to ignore and not complement his efforts. With the Indian team slated to tour Sri Lanka next month for a T20 tri-series, Agarwal’s India call-up might be round the corner. BCCI has set precedents earlier sending second string teams to feature in such commitments.
“He has been looking really good. He played fantastically well today against Hyderabad. Though, we can’t disclose whether the senior players will be rested or not, which will be decided on February 24th, I can say Agarwal has been really impressive, said BCCI chief selector MSK Prasad on the sidelines.
Agarwal has a habit of saying ‘to be honest’ before answering a question. But it is not the technique or shots that help a batsman climb to the top level, it is mental toughness to outwit the opposition. Agarwal has grown mentally exponentially this year. And that, to be honest, could be key towards his healthy career.