For all the talent in the side and the ability to win games, India struggled in South Africa and England, primarily due to the batting. The openers struggled and that exposed the middle order to the new ball. The template was pretty similar in Australia where KL Rahul and Murali Vijay could not get going in Adelaide and Perth. With the injury to Prithvi Shaw, India drafted in Mayank Agarwal to the side and out walked two new openers in Hanuma Vihari and Mayank Agarwal to take strike against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was an experiment which blossomed, India got off to a start, the new ball had been seen off and the platform had been set.
Mayank, who had literally knocked the door down with his domestic performances, was one of the finds of the series and now is India’s opener in Test cricket.
“I was very excited when I got the cap and I was looking forward to getting on the field and start playing. Wanted to get into the thick of things and get cracking. It helped in many ways that we batted first, because I was into the action and did not have enough time to think about other things. Had to be switched on from the word go, and it was nice I believe,” Mayank told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview.
There has been a lot of talk about the quality of Indian domestic circuit and its role in producing more rounded Test players. Mayank, who has been prolific in first-class cricket, looked at ease in Melbourne and he too credits the runs in scored in domestic cricket.
“Playing in Australia is very competitive. They play their cricket hard and they are a top side. It is a different experience and very different from what I had played, compared to even the IPL. The situations, the pressures, you come across so many different situations and pressures and that is the beauty of Test cricket. But having said that, all the runs I scored in domestic circuit gave me all the confidence.
The Boxing Day Test is a special moment in cricket, and players all over the globe have said enough about the pressure one feels when they stride out to the centre of the ground. The right-hander too conceded that he felt as if he was in a colosseum when he strode out to take guard, but the nerves eventually settled down.
“When I walked in, I was nervous, but was excited to be playing on the Boxing Day. I went into the middle and looked around, the first thought that came to my mind was ‘Well Mayank, you are in the middle of something big’. It is like a colosseum. Massive, noise, and a very big occasion.”
“When I played a few balls and middled a few balls and spent a couple of overs there, the nerves started to ease. Also, I had a plan and whenever the mind started wavering around, I reminded myself to stick to the plan. Once the nerves eased, I was playing the ball on its merit and you know, just batting. The journey had started,” he added.
After a tough time in the first two Test matches, KL Rahul was dropped and Mayank replaced him. The two are very good friends off the field and in many ways, and according to Mayank, the tips passed on by Rahul gave him a basic outline of the things to come.
“We are very good friends. KL spoke to me, we had gone out for coffee. He spoke to me, told me the things the Australian attack would look to do and this could be their plan. He identified the areas they would bowl. He gave me an outline of how they would target me. Having played international cricket, he gave me a good clue as to what would happen out in the centre,” the Karnataka-man said.
In the post-series press conference, both captain Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri spoke about the playing as a team without being too bothered about individual performances. The right-hander, who was the newest face in the side, said that felt at home from the time he walked into the dressing room and every individual backed him to do well, which was a great boost for him.
“Everyone was very warm, they welcomed me. Every person in the dressing room ensured that I was comfortable and ready to go and give my best. They backed me, asked me to believe in myself so that I can go and give my best on the field. From Sanjay Bangar sir to Ravi sir, to Virat, everybody.” “The team talk was about identifying the challenge as a big opportunity, to identify the big moments in the match and a huge chance to make this about the team’s chance to win a series. We are glad that we could go out and win a series in Australia and to be the first subcontinental side to do it was amazing. All the credit goes to the side and a big tick mark to everybody,” he said.
Yes, he got two scores of 70 and a 40, but there was this feeling that he missed out on two centuries in both the Test matches. However, for the player, there was a learning in his dismissals, one that should help him in future games.
“I was disappointed in Sydney, primarily because of the stroke I played. Not so much in Melbourne, because that ball kicked up from length. However, in Sydney, I had a plan to counter Nathan Lyon, but it did not work out. Now it is in the past, I have to take a good learning out if it and improve my game,” Mayank conceded.
Hanuma Vihari, another young man was impressive with his temperament in the tour, was asked to open the batting with Mayank at MCG and this worked out well for India. Although the start was not brisk, the two new openers had stayed put to blunt the new ball attack.
“Honestly, we were not thinking too much about the runs, the wicket was also not easy for stroke-making, so it was all about waiting for them to ball loose balls and to forge a partnership and to spend time in the middle. Things fell in place for us,” Agarwal added.
And then walked in Cheteshwar Pujara at number 3 and never left the crease. For Mayank it was great spending time with him trying to build a partnership and keep on grinding the opposition attack down.
“When he (Pujara) came in, the talk was always about building a partnership. Every time we lose a wicket, we try to play as many balls as possible without being bothered about the runs. This was the team plan and we stuck to it in every innings. We never wanted to lose wickets in clusters. Once we got the partnership going, we read the situations as to how to take things forward. At all times, we had to stick to our strengths and the team plans,” Mayank said.
Before the series started, there was a lot of talk about the two bowling attacks and few even believed that the Australian attack would be quite the handful in their home conditions. The opening batsman nods in agreement. According to him, the bowling was relentless, it was at you all the time and they kept coming hard.
“They are a quality Australian bowling attack. I cannot single out a bowler in particular, but they were relentless, on the money, they gave their best. You are playing international cricket, they will come hard at you and such was their quality, that any ball could claim your wicket. It was tough, but it was challenging at the same time.”
“Like in Sydney, they came hard at me with the short ball. It wasn’t easy, but this is international cricket, the bowlers will come hard at you to test your mettle. It has only improved my game,” Mayank said.
India would have ideally wanted to win in Sydney and march away with a 3-1 scoreline, but then rain thwarted the dash at a more comprehensive scoreline. However, as per the opener, the team was chuffed with the performance, but even while the celebrations were one, there was this message that the intensity displayed on this tour should be the way to go in all future matches.
“Rain was not in control, we really gave our best. We were happy we had done something amazing. But the team talk was all about maintaining the same intensity whenever we play a game of cricket,” Mayank signed off.