Contrary to the perception that he was under-cooked going into Australia as a replacement for the injured Prithvi Shaw, Agarwal had four weeks of solid grind in New Zealand with the India A side.
“We were playing a lot of games, so I really didn’t have the time to sit and brood over not being selected for the tour,” Agarwal says. “I was only focused on playing the upcoming game to the best of my ability. In my head, I’ve always been clear. Whether it’s a club game, Ranji Trophy game or an IPL game, the way I prepare mentally never changes. If a specific method works for me, there’s no reason for me to change it.
“That is what Ravi (Shastri) sir also told me two days before the Boxing Day Test. He gave me the confidence that I didn’t have a reason to deviate from what had brought me success at the Ranji Trophy level. He told me ‘go and just do what you’ve been doing there’. Words like those quickly inject a lot of belief and makes things easy.”
“By no means was it weird. In fact it was fitting that he was there when my moment came. Then in Sydney, we realised our dream of opening together for the country, which we spoke of as 16-year-olds”
Agarwal on replacing KL Rahul and then batting with him
Once the initial welcome and the easing in was out of the way, Agarwal charted his specific training routines. He sat down with batting coach Sanjay Bangar for a one-on-one and then put to practice all that they set to achieve. Among the first things on Agarwal’s agenda was to not let Nathan Lyon dominate. This stemmed from the confidence that he could hold his own against Australia’s three big quicks; that he’ll have no trouble getting through the new-ball burst
“Sanjay sir spoke to me at length about their fast bowlers, what they try and do, how they’ve been bowling and what I can do to counter that. Simultaneously, he also prepared a rough for me at practice and got people to bowl there. He would also tirelessly hurl balls at me. The focus was to get the best out of every session, and the results are a proof of that.
“My plan was to look to attack and not let Lyon dominate, because he was bowling really well. We knew if we put the pressure back on him, that would help us eventually because that would increase the load on their fast bowlers. We also went through what he’d done to India’s batsmen previously. I wanted to be positive and take the attack to him. It worked well, I’d say. If you hang back and wait to play him out, he is too good a bowler, so you have to be a step ahead, so I was happy to have prepared in a specific way for him.”
Mayank Agarwal defends off the back foot Getty Images
Another aspect of Agarwal’s preparation was speaking with his peers about their experiences. It helped that the best man at his wedding, KL Rahul, was also in the dressing room. The two first met each other as 15-year-olds at an age-group camp and have been best friends ever since. They even opened the batting together for India at the Under-19 World Cup in 2010. It had so far been a tradition to catch up for a meal whenever Rahul returned or was to depart for a tour. In Melbourne, it wasn’t just about the two being in the same dressing room, but about one replacing the other.
“By no means was it weird. In fact it was fitting that he was there when my moment came,” Agarwal says. “It is a professional sport and it can happen that your friend replaces another, but there’s always been support and nothing else from his side. It was nice of him to calm me down and wish me well, we went out for a meal and he shared experiences of his Test debut, and how he felt while walking out of that tunnel at the MCG.
“Glad I got to see Pujara in his real batting zone, it was great fun to spend time with him at the crease. Both of us don’t like to switch off while at the crease”
“We sat for a good two-three hours at a restaurant and spoke cricket. I could take a lot out of what we spoke, there’s lots to learn about his batting. He is the kind who when he gets runs, gets them in heaps. I’ve followed a lot of his good habits to get the kind of runs I did in the previous season. So, I was actually very relaxed and ready for my moment when it finally came. Then in Sydney, we realised our dream of opening together for the country, which we spoke of as 16-year-olds. So it was a reflection of many sweet memories on the flight home. The biggest, of course, was holding that trophy aloft. Words can’t describe what we all went through that day in Sydney.”
While meticulous preparation played a part in his solid initiation. Agarwal’s big takeaway was batting alongside Cheteshwar Pujara. The pair were engaged in a half-century stand in Melbourne and a century stand in Sydney. Agarwal referred to Pujara’s zone a number of times, explaining how at times watching him train and bat gave him the impression of watching someone “in love with batting to the core”.
“The way he sticks to his strengths and has undivided attention towards the next ball is a big lesson for any young batsman,” Agarwal says. “He can grind attacks expertly, but the manner in which he makes the shift from defence to attack at the slightest signs of the bowlers switching off was amazing to see. Glad I got to see Pujara in his real batting zone, it was great fun to spend time with him at the crease. Both of us don’t like to switch off while at the crease, so we kept passing on information about how the wicket was behaving or what the bowlers were trying to do, what we should to do be a step ahead. It was a great learning experience.”