Akshay Gopalakrishnan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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At his core, Mayank Agarwal is an uncomplicated strokemaker. He isn't the hardest hitter around, but he is gutsy and expressive at the crease. Competitive cricket, though, isn't so elementary. Natural game doesn't always cut it; conditions and circumstances demand subtle adjustments, and Agarwal has had to make his share.
Having made his first-class debut in 2013, it has taken him four years to realise his true potential as a batsman. Today, he is the leading scorer in the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy, having racked up 1000 runs in a single month. Agarwal is one among only nine batsmen to have scored 1000-plus runs in a single season in the last decade. But he is the quickest, having taken just 10 innings.
There was a lull before the storm. Agarwal's season began with 31 against Assam and a pair of ducks against Hyderabad. It put him on the verge of being dropped, with Kaunain Abbas waiting at the bench, but Karnataka gave him a final chance against Maharashtra, and he seized it by hitting the 50th triple century on Indian soil. Since then, he has struck four centuries and a 90 in six innings.
The decision to shed the feeling of being self-conscious has made Agarwal more aware as a batsman.
"That's what batting is all about: allow your sub-conscious to work. The moment you interfere, you are finished," R Muralidhar, Agarwal's coach of three years, said. "If you look at the way he got bowled in the two innings (against Hyderabad), it is nothing but him interfering with the mind. The decision has to happen in a split second, and if there are too many thoughts in the mind, you are caught in no man's land."
This transition, from a goal-oriented mindset of wanting to score fifties and hundreds to an approach of simply enjoying batting in the middle, was recent. It took a middling home series with the India A team against New Zealand, where two outings fetched 21 runs, to make it happen. Now, Agarwal feels less pressure because he has learnt to take failure in his stride.
"He called up after those two ducks and laughed about it," Muralidhar said. "We've learned to manage emotions better. Smile if you get out for nought, because we know he's a good player and there is no two ways about it.
"For him, every failure was building up and his goal was getting further way. It took us a lot of time to understand, 'so what?' The moment he let go of that goal, he started opening up."
For Agarwal, the effect of this change was best felt in Karnataka's penultimate league match, against Uttar Pradesh. On a pitch that offered swing and bounce, Agarwal played compact shots, unfurling a series of drives and cuts. When UP packed the off-side field, he pierced it with precision. By the time he fell, slashing an edge to first slip, he had struck 90 out of his team's score of 121 at the time, off just 73 balls. "It was more of a blank mind. And having so many runs on my back then, I thought I was free-flowing," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I think after the 300, once the confidence came and I let go of the fear of failure, I was able to control my thoughts and I wasn't consciously doing too much."
This ability to control his thoughts could perhaps be traced back to 2011, when a 20-year-old Agarwal was recommended Vipassana, an ancient meditation technique. Agarwal wasn't readily willing to take up the course, but upon insistence from his father, decided to give it a try. "He told me, 'Mayank, I think this is something that has a lot of relevance to your sport'. At that time, I didn't take it too seriously and kept postponing. But he pushed me and said, if not every day, give it a good 10-15 days with an open mind. When I finished the course, I felt I had less negative thoughts, so I decided to continue.
"It makes you feel positive and you become aware of your thoughts. And if there are negative thoughts coming in, or a negative feeling inside you, just concentrating on your breathing for those 15-20 minutes or half an hour helps you block them out, and not give in to them, not fall into that vicious circle. The more you do it, the more control you get over your mind."
That this mindset shift has come on the back of some solid work on his technique has helped more. By Agarwal's own admission, when he first approached Muralidhar in 2014, it was out of "wanting to address the ball with a consistent technique." Agarwal learned to keep the bat close to the body, built a stable base and worked on his head position to prevent the occasional falling across. Known for being a technical coach, Muralidhar set about setting things right but soon realised he needed to dig deeper.
"It's about how he used to prepare for the shot. Everything boils down to balance," Muralidhar said. "There was this time when he felt he was making this third or fourth movement which was affecting him. He would call me and ask me to look at videos. Any time he failed, he would revert to blaming his technique. So this year we decided to ignore technique and look at skill.
"Technique is defined. So there's a definition of a cover drive. But skill is different. You play the cover drive the way you want to, not how the textbook tells you to. If you can do that consistently, you just stick to that. That worked well and I became more of a problem creator for him. I used to create hypothetical situations and ask him to tackle them: setting a certain field, surviving the new ball, short balls, packed off-side to the spinners, and so on.
"My style of coaching changed because of him, because I was very much into technique and he is very stubborn. I had stencils in my mind of how a good batsman should be. I call it explicit coaching, where you tell someone, 'This is how you should play.' I was one of those. Then I realised I didn't play cricket that way, so why am I forcing it on someone else? He came to me because I'm a technical coach, but now I have evolved."
The shift from technique to skill was a kind of graduation in Agarwal and Muralidhar's alliance. Situation-based training has given Agarwal a good insight into his own game and mental bandwidth. Agarwal still plays his shots. He still occasionally gets out to the rash stroke. But there is a certain maturity and calmness to the way he approaches an innings now.
On the physical front, long-distance running during the off-season has built him up for the long haul. The effects are already being seen. Never known to be a heavy scorer, three of Agarwal's five centuries this season have been scores of over 150. His 727-minute marathon against Maharashtra is the second-longest innings by a Karnataka batsman in the Ranji Trophy.
"He is very hardworking, disciplined and driven to achieve his goals," Muralidhar said. "He travels close to 30-40 kilometres for training and has never been late. Integrity is one of his major attributes. It's because of the big picture that he sees in front of him. That's what drives him. He knows he is a good cricketer and he wants to maximise his potential."
Agarwal keeps the people that matter close to him. He considers family time his biggest stress-buster and his parents are his "pillars of strength." The importance of a healthy environment to learn and unwind can never be undervalued. Right now, Agarwal is reaping the benefits of both. Progression from here can only be natural.