KL Rahul and Murali Vijay must have watched the proceedings of the morning session on Day 1 of the Boxing Day Test with a fair degree of envy. The Melbourne Cricket Ground had rolled out what was comfortably the best batting surface of the tour so far and the makeshift opening pair of Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari made the most of their opportunity to blunt Australia’s feared new-ball attack.
The opening stand was worth 40 runs but they played out 18.5 overs. It was India’s longest opening partnership in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa in 67 innings since the Centurion Test in Dec 2010 when Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir lasted 29.3 overs. It did the job that Rahul and Vijay had failed to do.
The duo batted with a clear head and they could perhaps do it because they had no doubts in their mind.
At close of play, in the press conference, Agarwal said, “I wanted to just go out there and bat. I wanted to assess the pitch as I batted on it and not worry too much about the grass on it or how green it was.”
Getting basics right
Agarwal’s innings showed just why he has managed to score tons of runs at the first-class level since last season. Since last season alone, the Karnataka opener has scored 1,918 runs at an average of 71.03 with six 100s and seven 50s. These stellar numbers pushed him into the India reckoning but for some reason the selectors would keep looking past him – either at veterans like Shikhar Dhawan or juniors like Prithvi Shaw.
The 27-year-old didn’t let that get to him when it would have been so easy to.
“I was happy to be picked for the West Indies [series] and then whether I played or not was not in my hands,” he said. “I wanted to play for India but I also realised I have to keep scoring runs. Thankfully, in between, there was a lot of India A and first-class cricket. When you are playing a game, you want to put your best foot forward there.”
Agarwal played the Australian quicks with a fair degree of caution. He was prepared to wait for the bad ball and not go chasing after anything too wide of the off-stump. But most impressive was the manner in which he faced Nathan Lyon, Australia’s highest wicket-taker in the series so far. He cut him; he drove him; he used his feet against him in a very impressive manner that showed he’s got his basics right.
The more one watched him bat, the more one wondered: Why did he have to wait so long?
Hopefully, there is a lesson here for everyone involved to learn. For too long, India have put either potential or the skipper’s choice ahead of form. For too long, the selectors have looked at first-class cricket with skepticism. For too long, the in-form players have been put on standby.
Rahul’s failings were obvious well before the West Indies series. Vijay’s form had seen an upsurge only in the English county season. Still, they were picked ahead of a player who had established himself as the best domestic batsman by a country mile. India basically picked them with the hope that they would sort things out on the tour itself.
That proved to be difficult to do. Rahul looked jittery and Vijay… a bit too uncharacteristically flashy. Combined with Prithvi Shaw’s injury, their failure meant that Agarwal finally got his chance – not by choice but by default.
Agarwal’s knows what it means to be dropped – he also knows what it means to not be picked. He was benched halfway through the 2014-’15 Ranji season for not taking enough responsibility and poor fitness. It turned out to be a wake-up call. He got his act together, worked on his fitness, and hammered his maiden first-class century in the following season.
From that point on, he’s only got better. He talent probably doesn’t stand out in the same way as Rahul’s does but the sheer weight of runs he has scored gives him the belief to let go of the fear of failure. He can just go out there and bat with a blank mind. That is what good form can do – it can make you believe in your methods even when faced with tough odds.
We have seen the same thing happen with Cheteshwar Pujara as well. When the right-hander is in bad form, he still puts a premium on his wicket, but the difference between the innings he played on Wednesday and the ones he would play in bad form was the manner in which he dealt with the poor deliveries. Here, he was more than happy to dispatch anything loose to the boundary and that makes him a very different prospect to bowl at. He has found, one can argue, his best form now.
The same argument can perhaps be made for Rohit Sharma – who keeps getting chances based on his potential despite his ordinary form in Test cricket. No one argues against Rohit’s potential but his temperament has let him down again and again in Test cricket. Perhaps, he might find inspiration in Agarwal’s fight.
Class may be permanent but as Agarwal showed it is nothing without form and belief. This will go down as a special day for Mayank and he would have liked to get more runs, no doubt, but he’ll take this for now.
“The way things have moved along, it feels very very special to make a debut at MCG. I did what I did in the Ranji Trophy and the five years I spent in the Ranji Trophy were also a great learning process. You play on a lot of different wickets and in different conditions all around India,” said Agarwal about his struggle in the early years.
“It wasn’t easy to get hold of the emotions and focus there. But it was needed to be done and I just stuck to the plan. And kept telling myself that there is a plan I have to go with and I will just stick with that. Even though it was overwhelming… it was good… I am happy with the way I started.”
Indeed, most in India were happy that what was long promised has finally made a start.