Mayank Agarwal’s celebration after a crucial hundred at Wankhede on Friday indicates how special the knock was for him, but is it enough to kickstart his career again, asks Sarah Waris.
As Mayank Agarwal caressed a 124kmph delivery from Daryl Mitchell through extra cover for a four to bring up his fourth Test ton, the shriek, and the scream, and the roar following an animated jump gave it all away. Criticized and questioned recently due to perceived technical flaws, Mayank was in the firing line after a failure in the Kanpur Test as India looked to welcome back Virat Kohli from his much-deserved break at Mumbai, and the hundred went a long way in silencing his naysayers.
His criticism wasn’t without reason, though. After a stellar start to his Test career, where Mayank scored 872 runs in nine games at an average of 67.07, including a fine 76 and 42 on debut at the MCG in 2018, his performances dipped alarmingly. In six Tests since the start of 2020 till the second Test against the Kiwis, Mayank had managed just one fifty with six single-digit scores, an interim in which his average read 17.50. However, more than the lack of runs, it was the mode of dismissals that remained a worry. His trigger movement got him into a closed-off position, with his front shoulder facing the off side. It forced him to play square of the wicket, becoming a major reason for his downfall in Australia last season.
Around the same time, Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma rose up the ranks to all but seal the opener’s spots after the experiment with Prithvi Shaw at the top failed to take off as expected. But just when it seemed that Mayank’s future was a dead-end, an opening presented itself when Gill was ruled out of the England series. In a cruel twist of fate, though, the opportunity was soon snatched away as a last-minute injury saw him take the flight back home. KL Rahul was the beneficiary, and as he combined with Rohit to see off the new ball innings-after-innings in England, his statemate Mayank’s prospects sunk deeper.
Destiny, though, works in weird ways. Having robbed him of the chance to play in England, it now worked in his favour as a muscle strain meant Rahul was sidelined for the home Tests against the Kiwis. Mayank was back at the top with Rohit opting for rest, and it was now up to him to grab his chances to come back into the reckoning. Scores of 13 and 17 in the first game did him no favours, but a “hamstring niggle” to Ajinkya Rahane allowed him another chance. It could have been his last, and Mayank was determined to make the most of it.
On a track that played slow, Mayank was cautious in his defence right from the first over. He left the balls that seamed sharply away, saw off the full balls comfortably, and swatted away any loose deliveries. He flicked away the balls on his pads, drove the half-volleys through the gaps, played with soft hands, and only had a moment’s trouble in the eighth over when he went down on his knee and tried to pull Ajaz Patel, toeing it back to the bowler. For the most part, though, he looked solid and got inside the line of the ball well. No other India batter got a fifty on day one, and both Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara fell for ducks. India needed someone to hold them together, and that’s exactly what Mayank did.
And then, the moment. The moment he waited 750 days for. The moment after a period when self-doubts had crept in and when confidence was at an all-time low. A period where the struggles overshadowed the wondrous rise and the failures cast doubt over the future: Did he belong? Did he ever belong?
But is it really enough? In December 2019, Mayank, speaking to ESPNCricinfo had stated, “A hundred is a magical figure, but sometimes a hundred is not enough.” The words seem almost prophetic now.
India has a rich group of match-winners in their ranks, and while it is a matter of great pride, the pressure on the players is always immense as even a match-winning century or an important five-for does not guarantee a spot in the next encounter.
The assembling of India’s full-strength squad in South Africa could once again see Mayank in the shadows. With Rohit and Rahul the likely openers after their historic performance in England, Mayank faces the possibility of a long wait yet again. At best, he can take over from Pujara at the No.3 slot — and considering his recent lack of form, it could be a move that India experiment with sooner than later — but it is dependent on the whims and the fancies of the management rather than on how well Mayank plays. Rahane’s spot is under the scanner too but with Iyer along with Hanuma Vihari, and even Gill, strong contenders to bat in the middle order in the near future, Mayank’s best option is in the top three, and unfortunately, for now, there appears no opening for him.
Currently, Mayank stands with the second-best Test average at home, of 93.37, only after Don Bradman, among all batters with at least 500 runs scored, a number that is astonishing, to say the least. When in full flow, he is a notch above the rest, as he showed at Wankhede, and while it would have silenced the demons inside him and shut down the critics, will it really change his immediate future?
Perhaps not. But this was an innings about more than just advancing his case. Every time Mayank shimmied down the wicket, he oozed class, with his swagger almost reminiscent of the great Vivian Richards. As Shubman Gill and Pujara and Kohli and then Shreyas Iyer walked back, Mayank held one end up, giving the assurance of an old warhorse, who had promised to take India to safety by the day’s play. His roar at the hundred proved a point, more to himself than to us; a point that he still had it in him, and that the worst days have a way of receding into a hopeful tomorrow.