There is a significant change in Mayank Agarwal this season. It really is hard to miss.
No, he hasn’t lost his boyish smile that almost instantly makes him seem genial even from afar, but he’s certainly better built than before. The 26-year-old’s shoulders are wider, there is little semblance of adipose tissue around the gut and his gait is even more athletic.
While some might attribute his growing love for the weight room as the reason behind him putting up 480 runs in his last two Ranji Trophy innings, those closer to Agarwal will disagree to a degree.
Of course, weight training and a strict diet aid cricketers in bearing with cricket’s growing demands, but split-second decisions need prior work at the mental level, and no amount of time spent at the gym can prepare you for that. That’s where Agarwal has really made the turnaround.
Agarwal has only recently found a mind-sharpening tool, and it could not have come at a better time. Agarwal, upon a suggestion from his parents, took up Vipasana late last year and is now reaping the benefits of the ancient meditation technique.
Agarwal showed that he was coming into his own last season too, scoring 417 from eight innings, but at a time when players were putting up numbers upwards of 1000, his digits paled in comparison.
Also, his reputation for being best suited to the shortest format didn’t help him much. To add to this, even when he was playing first-class cricket, there were attempts to create a shot from balls that deserved far more respect, only for Agarwal to perish.
“I have made a conscious decision to leave balls outside the off-stump over the last couple of years and I’m happy it’s bearing fruit,” said Agarwal on Thursday, after scoring 176 in Karnataka’s surge to 649 against Delhi in their Group A Ranji Trophy 2017-18 clash at the Alur (2) grounds.
“I did a lot of long-distance running coming into this season. I feel that it has helped me, and for a guy who hits 1000 balls in a couple of days, this is not too much and I am glad to do that.”
Agarwal, despite a cheerful exterior which has often been mistaken for impracticality, is known in Karnataka circles as someone with a remarkable work ethic. The other trait many associate him with, apart from his constant need to play pranks, is his obsessive need to perfect his technique.
Which could explain why Agarwal picked RX Murali as his personal batting coach three years ago. Known for his obsessive-compulsive training methods, Murali finally found his match, and the alliance was headed in the intended direction.
“There was a time after the first year, there was a two-month break during which I changed his entire technique,” explained Murali on the sidelines of the match. “We worked for three months and it was working brilliantly. But a week before the start of the Ranji season (2015-16), he came to me and asked me why I changed his technique. I said it was because this was better. He asked me how I can be sure that my method was the right method because anyway he had played a certain way and done well so far. I said this will help him perform better, and he asked me for a guarantee. Obviously, I couldn’t so he reverted to his old technique, and scored a century soon after.”
This instance, among other similar ones involving Agarwal, forced Murali to change his approach to coaching his most illustrious ward and possibly others in his academy in Bangalore.
“My style of coaching changed because of him. He is very stubborn and I am far too into technique. I had my stencils in my mind that this how a good batsman should be,” said Murali. “I was forced to let go of them and so was he. Every time he used to come back and say something was wrong. I realised that somewhere down the line, he was worried only about how he looked. Then the true fact came through, that you need to address the ball and score runs. Instead, he was getting very conscious rather than working at a subconscious level. Every time, even when batting at sixty overnight, he would call up and say ‘Why don’t you have a look at the video?’ He used to send a video and say there’s a third movement or fourth movement, and I would tell him to forget about all that and just bat.”
He continued: “Whenever he has just gone out and played, he has scored runs, but then when he would fail he would revert to blaming his technique. This year we sat down and decided that we were going to ignore technique and look at skill. There’s a difference between sill and technique. Technique is very clearly defined, skill isn’t. See you can play a cover drive any which way you want to and if you can do that consistently, why not persist with it? It doesn’t have to look out of the textbooks. That actually started working well and we completely got out of technique base and started working on a process where I became more of a problem-creator for him. I would give him a situation and ask him to find a solution. In this method, he let go of his obsession with technique.”
Agarwal had worked himself into a lather before the start of this season and had plenty to prove, but knocks of 31, 0 and 0 didn’t exactly reflect the quantity or quality of his off-season work. In fact, given his slim pickings of under 2,000 runs in 29 first-class games before this season, many assumed that this season wasn’t headed anywhere either, and nor was the dream of making it to the national side.
“After getting a pair, he called and laughed. That was very uncharacteristic of him,” revealed Murali. “For him, every failure was building up and his goal was getting further away. It took us a lot of time for him to say ‘So what? (if the goals aren’t met)’. The moment he let go of that goal, he started opening up. Of course, playing for India is the ultimate, but you cannot think of playing for the national side and forget about what will take you there.”
Far more at ease with the idea of failure, Agarwal went about his innings in Pune against Maharashtra with freedom from his own expectations. The lack of baggage garnered runs and lots of it. In his longest innings to date (727 minutes), Agarwal ate up an astounding 494 balls, but more importantly, he made an unbeaten 304.
Sure, there were signs of Agarwal of the old in the triple-century, 28 boundaries and four hits over the fence will attest to that, but he wasn’t going to throw it away. His latest century was much the same, only he didn’t have to dig as deep this time around. He ran himself out within six overs of the second day, but 179 runs from 250 balls with 24 boundaries and three sixes is more like him. It seems like he’s finally finding the balance that he wasn’t able to strike all through his cricketing career.
“When you start telling your mind that this might work and this might not, that’s when cricketers get stuck,” said Murali. “You need to allow your subconscious to work. That’s what batting is all about. The moment you interfere, you are finished. If you look at the way he got bowled in the two innings (against Hyderabad) it is nothing but him interfering with his mind. There were too many thoughts in his mind. The decision has to happen in a split second and if you interfere too much then you are caught in no man’s land.”
M Vijay, nicknamed Monk, revealed long ago that the moniker possibly came about because of his calm nature or because he shaved his head once, and not because he meditated (he never has). With Agarwal, it’s pretty obvious why his Karnataka team-mates call him the Monk, and Agarwal doesn’t mind the catchy tag. After all, the force is with him.