How to turn fans away from Test cricket? Leave them out to bake in sun, MCA style
A thick edge that flew past the diving gully, a bestial thud on the helmet, the thinnest of margins averting an lbw call and an edge that died between first slip and a flinging ‘keeper — how Mayank Agarwal endured these scares in the first session and remained unruffled to construct his second Test hundred probably sheds as much insight into his batsmanship as the delightful strokes he has unfurled in the series. All of the aforementioned instances are occupational hazards for most batsmen, especially openers, barring conditions, but Agarwal’s true genius lies in that he rarely got cowed down or doubted himself. After all, he has still not taken his Test match count into double figures.
Rather such instances only fuelled him, like a shot of caffeine. Take for example the away-from-the-body push off Vernon Philander that eluded gully’s outstretched grasp. Agarwal winced, admitting the flashiness of the stroke. But crucially, he didn’t let the incident play subconsciously in his mind.
So despite the bowler sensing a vulnerability, and probing it, Agarwal didn’t shy away from the stroke. The next time the ball was in a similar zone, he punched it off the back-foot. Only that, he made a few fundamental adjustments. He made contact closer to the body, was not looking to feel the ball, played with softer hands and the back-foot went more across.
Thus rather than being reactive, and shrinking into a shell of self-doubt, the opener was adaptive, showing that the edge was an aberration, thus killing the psychological advantage the bowler might have been enjoying, making a case that he couldn’t be bullied into submission. To not let doubts creep into his mind and remain unaltered in his approach is a rare gift.
Two overs later, he aggravated his agony with three delicious boundaries — a handsome straight drive, and a brace of crisp cover drives.
After lunch, Nortje tried the bouncer trick again, only to be ferociously pulled, one of Agarwal’s staple stokes. The second of those was dragged from outside off-stump, an authority-stamping shot. This time, his eyes were unblinkingly on the ball, the wrists firmly over it. The tearaway was torn apart.
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The other instance was when an edged drive off Philander to a delivery that wasn’t quite of drivable length. It didn’t deter him from driving again. In fact, he drove adroitly whenever the pacers erred on the fuller side, sometimes even good-length ones were resolutely driven on the rise. The bounce of the strip aided him too, as it was neither too bouncy to have made the shot a high-risk one nor dual-bounced to keep him wary of the one that scuds along the strip.
It didn’t matter either that the bowlers were trying to bait him into a false stroke. For the airy drive, Faf du Plessis had posted a short cover, to cut the cover boundaries, the sweepers prowled. There was a fine-leg for the miscued pull, there was a long-off (sometimes long-on too) for spinner Keshav Maharaj. Yet, they could neither stop him from playing shots through these regions not deny him the boundaries. Maharaj was smoked for a pair of successive sixes to move from 87 to 99.
No matter the plots and ploys, baits and bluffs, Agarwal wouldn’t compromise on his percentage strokes. In the unabashed belief in his stroke-play, he was a bit like Virender Sehwag, without the latter’s flamboyance and edge-of-the-seat derring-do.
Rather, he’s a toned-down Sehwag, Sehwagian in mentality rather than stroke-making grandeur. Agarwal goes about his job more quietly, more judiciously even, doesn’t get his runs at a breakneck pace, doesn’t give the kicks of watching Sehwag, but demoralises bowlers nonetheless.
Like Sehwag, he can score through unusual areas and split the most claustrophobic of gaps. Like in Vizag where he threaded short cover and short extra-cover with immaculate precision.
Like Sehwag, and most other good batsmen, he’s difficult to plan against, to even keep quiet. If it’s marginally full, he will cheerfully drive, if’s it’s minimally short, he would pull and cut. And even if it’s neither full nor short, he can still punish bowlers.
Maharaj would admit, as some of his deliveries on the stumps were slapped behind point. Some of his flatter, fuller ones were drilled through long-on. When the mood seizes him, Agarwal can sweep and reverse-sweep. A batsman with such repertoire, and an unhindered mindset to use it efficiently, promises long hard days under the sun for hapless bowlers.
What his approach predominantly ensures is that the tempo never drops. It was assumed that once Kagiso Rabada had nailed Rohit Sharma, the run rate would plunge. Sensing this, South Africa attacked more aggressively, only for Agarwal to keep the impetus intact. It was a ropey phase of the game, more with Cheteshwar Pujara’s slow-starting reputation. It was an ideal opportunity for the tourists to exert pressure. But Agarwal didn’t buckle down.