The story goes like this… During India's tour of the West Indies in 1983, Mohinder Amarnath returned to the pavilion after a day's play in a Test, unbeaten on 80-odd. As he took off his shirt, there was a collective groan in the dressing room but Amarnath took the dark marks on his body caused by the bouncer barrage from the West Indies pace quartet with his customary nonchalance. He finished the series with 598 runs from five Tests, including two centuries and four half-centuries. Even the Caribbean cricketers of the 'Fire in Babylon' vintage acknowledged Amarnath's mastery and courage against the hostile and intimidatory short-pitched bowling.
Mayank Agarwal plays in an era when the number of bouncers is restricted to only two per over. Beamers are not allowed and the helmets are far superior. But Test cricket still remains the game's gold standard. The first morning of the fourth Test match in Sydney was spectacularly attritional, glorifying the long form's charm.
With regard to Amarnath and Agarwal, there's an apparent symmetry between the two. Amarnath, too, had been susceptible to fast short-pitched bowling when he started his international career but gradually grew into the game to flirt with greatness. Agarwal also carries an apparent weakness against the short ball. Time will tell about his improvement, but on Thursday he toughed it out, which was the real beauty of his innings. His courage would have made even Amarnath proud.
The SCG pitch usually doesn't assist lateral movement after the first hour. So Mitchell Starc and company tried to hit the deck hard and bowled into the body, when the ball got a little older. They figured out a chink in the young opener's armour and tried to exploit it. A back-of-a-length delivery from Starc hit Agarwal on his elbow when he was on 22.
In his next over, Starc made another one rear off a length. This time also, Agarwal had very little clue. He ducked under it, gloved the ball and got a lucky four over the slips. Then, he got hit on the helmet. "The greatness of Test cricket, you are as strong as your weakest link. Will be interesting to see how Mayank manages the short balls," former India stumper Deep Dasgupta tweeted. It was indeed a test of courage and character for Agarwal. He eventually passed it with distinction.
Agarwal's coach in the senior national team, Ravi Shastri, was one of the most assured Indian batters against short-pitched bowling when he opened for the country. It's not known if Agarwal had received any advice from Shastri to counter the short ball during the lunch break. But after the interval, he looked an improved player. He started to sway away from the line of the bouncers. He also stood tall and punched a length delivery from Starc for a four to reach his second half-century in three Test innings.
Pat Cummins aimed at his rib cage, but the opener jumped and played it with soft hands towards leg gully. In fact, Cummins started to overuse the shot ball. By that time, though, Agarwal had gained enough confidence to duck comfortably under the bouncers. He also played a gorgeous pull shot, albeit for a single to fine leg. Cheteshwar Pujara, in the middle of a dream run and calmly absorbing the pressure and blows at the other end, made his junior partner's job easier.
Agarwal spoke about his mid-pitch conversations with Pujara in the morning session. "The plan's been to always make small partnerships after each wicket and that's the same thing we spoke about. We said we are going to get a partnership together. And I thought they did bowl really well, and we said 'let's try and play close to the body'." He added that he intended to "dominate" Nathan Lyon, which didn't "work out".
Agarwal expressed his disappointment over not getting a big one.
"Yeah, I'm quite disappointed for missing out on a big score. Really disappointed that I threw my wicket away. That said, it's a learning curve. If I don't make this mistake again, then it will be a good learning."
In three Test innings so far, Agarwal has made 76, 42 and 77. His knocks assume greater significance, given the fact that Murali Vijay is on the decline and KL Rahul has become a walking wicket. The 27-year-old has waited far too long to get his opportunities at this level. He scored a mountain of runs in domestic first-class cricket, but failed to impress the selectors. He wasn't in the original squad for this tour and got picked only after Prithvi Shaw was ruled out following an ankle injury. But Agarwal seems to be determined to make up for lost time. And if he remains consistent, he would be a solution to India's opening woes.
Shaw would be at the other end, when he returns from injury. The Mumbai teenager oozed talent during the home series against West Indies. If he and Agarwal gel well, India will have an opening partnership for the future.