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'100 is a magical figure, but sometimes 100 is not enough'

Mayank Agarwal on how he he had to rework himself mentally in his relentless pursuit for big runs

After his first home season with India and just over a year after making a dream start to his Test career, Mayank Agarwal talks about how he had to mentally rework himself in his relentless pursuit for big runs. In this interview from December 2019, he opens up on his intensity, about staying focused on the job, and how older players like Rahul Dravid and Vinay Kumar helped him identify vital touchpoints within his mental make-up.
You have 11 hundreds in first-class cricket. Seven of those are scores of 150 or higher. What part of your game do you think has made you suited to make so many 150-plus scores?
Long hours of batting with RX [Murali, personal coach] and understanding the fact that 100 is a magical figure but sometimes 100 is not enough. More often than not, you have to go on to score bigger runs than that and have the hunger to continue to bat long. Setting targets for yourself where you are looking at sessions or situations [such that] in a four-day game, your team doesn't have to bat twice. So things like that have really got the best out of me.
It must help that you have a lot of run-scoring options, like your idol Virender Sehwag. But it seems like you are willing to put those shots away if needed. Are you now more patient?
It has more to do with understanding that there can only be one Virender Sehwag. Or that he's a different player and has a different game, and I'm a different player and I'll have a different game. A few things might be similar, but the fact that I have a better understanding of my game and knowing what I can do and what is working for me, I think that [helps].
You made 1000 runs in November 2017, and the defining innings there was the triple-hundred against Maharashtra, which came after a string of poor scores. Were you nervous coming into that innings?
Yes. The previous game I'd got two zeroes. And I wasn't sure, to be honest, if I was going to even be in the side, forget about playing the game. Somewhere, as a batsman, there was that fear of getting out. And when you hit rock bottom you realise there is nothing to lose. It cannot get worse than it already is.
What was the start of that innings like?
When I played that innings, I had let go of the fear of failure. I wasn't scared of getting out. I said to myself that there was nothing worse that can happen from there on, because I'd hit rock bottom. And then I said, let me go out there, make a plan for myself and then keep going. Let me just get a start. If I can get a start, at least I'll have something to build on.
And Vinay Kumar [the Karnataka captain] had come and spoken to me before the game. He said, 'If you get out early, there's nothing you can do about it, you've got to start from scratch. But if you get a start, and get a decent score, make sure you make it big. You've had it hard, so don't throw that thing away.' So that's when I thought to myself, I could take a cue from this. Just forget about scoring big, remove my thoughts from around any of that, and just focus to get that start. And once I got that start and I got set, then I said, now I've got an opportunity. Let me not throw it away. And then I just kept batting and batting.
For about 12 hours. Was that the longest you'd played?
Yes. Probably the longest.
During that innings did you learn about your game?
The first fifty or hundred was a lot of thoughts, a lot of fighting in the head. And I did play a lot more balls to get to that [score] than I normally do. It was more about first looking to get set. I wasn't thinking of getting out, I wasn't thinking of scoring runs, I was just looking to watch the ball and keep playing the ball.
It didn't matter if I got beaten or anything like that, because at that moment, just let me do the things in hand and let me get a start. Even though I reached a hundred, that thought ticked in my head of what Vinay Kumar said. And then when I built onto that, I said again, no, let me start from zero.
And when I got to another milestone I said, let me start from zero again. Because I've had it hard, I've got two zeroes, it would be foolish of me to say now I've got something and just throw it away. Look to play sessions. Look to play till drinks, look to play an hour, and then start from zero again, so I could build from there. That was something I learnt about myself and my game from that innings. And I've kept that close to me.
Would you say that's what has kept you making big scores, even at Test level?
Yes. Because as a cricketer I now understand that you're not going to succeed always. You're not always going to have a great series or a great year. It then becomes important that when you're getting those runs and when you're having a good season, you've got to make it big. Because you know, as a sportsman, that there will be a time where you go through a little lull. And if you have been true and you've worked hard and scored runs when things were going well, it can take the pressure off you. And also you'll have a template to get back to scoring big.
Are there any other innings from that phase you find memorable to date?
The game against Delhi. They had a great bowling attack. Scoring runs against them was good. But the real big challenge was when we played Railways in Delhi, at the Karnail Singh Stadium. We were 20 for 3 then and Manish [Pandey] and me stitched a big partnership. We took the team through and got a big score. Having confidence and having a template of how I was getting the runs helped there as well.
And now it just seems like the captain can hold up two fingers and you'll get a double-hundred.
(Laughs) I don't know. As I said, it's a dream. You know it's never going to happen like that. But yes, in Vizag [against South Africa] when I got a 150, Virat [Kohli] was there at the other end and he said, "Nothing short of a 200 will do. You're batting well, make sure to not just score for yourself but for your team. The team needs to get a bigger score and it's important for you to be there to help us get that score at a faster pace."
And even when I got a double-hundred against Bangladesh, that was the case. He said, "Nothing short of 200 is gonna do." So when I got to 150, it was a reminder from his side that we have spoken about these things. Now you've got to go out there and execute because you're batting well, you're in the middle, team's in a good position and the team requires you to take us through to more.
"When you hit rock bottom, you realise there is nothing to lose. It cannot get worse than it already is"
What's a partnership in Tests so far that you remember fondly?
The partnership with [Cheteshwar] Pujara was a lot about grit, a lot about fighting when we played against Australia in Australia. The partnership with Rohit [Sharma] against South Africa, the first Test, was a lot about both of us opening for the first time in India. It was just about getting set, understanding home conditions, making use of home conditions and then when we got a big partnership, I think it was more like rediscovering what we can do. Because in the partnership Rohit and I were talking and I said, "I've never reverse-swept." And he said, "Neither have I." So it was discovering a few things. We weren't doing anything risky, but those shots automatically started coming out.
Have you ever been part of such a partnership before Test cricket, where you were discovering things about your game as you went along?
It was that partnership with [R] Samarth [the 304 not out] and with Manish against Railways. Sam [Samarth] was playing really well and fast. And it's usually the other way round - I'm the one who's getting quick runs and getting boundaries a lot more easily. He was talking me through that, said that it could come on a little slower, that you've got to have a little more patience. Because they were obviously bowling well and I wasn't feeling at my best.
You come across as someone who is very intense about his game. Is that accurate?
Yes. I am very intense when it comes to cricket. That's something I didn't really know about myself. I knew I used to play hard and think a lot, but I never really had that perspective about being an intense person on the field. And then having a full season with Rahul sir [Dravid], he brought that to me. He said, "Mayank, I think you're a very intense guy. You practise a lot and you need to manage your mental energies."
That was the first time I actually thought about it from that perspective. And we had a great chat about managing mental energies, seeing how much I put into practice, the amount I actually need to put in practice, and also to not carry forward a lot of the practice sessions, say, to your hotel room. Or to not carry your match result into your practice session, or your next game. So just managing that and being smart about it.
What exactly does it mean, to be managing mental energy?
It's very easy for someone to carry what has happened in the previous two hours or in the previous game to the rest of the day, or to whatever is happening next. It's very important to understand that that has gone and not stress about it and not take the negatives out of it, or if you've done well, not feel overly confident.
How do you leave things behind?
My process would just be to read a book, keep myself engaged with something. Talk to family. And just think about a lot of things that have gone right, or a lot of good things that have happened. That keeps your mind very positive.
Did you need to learn to switch off? And has it contributed to the long innings?
Yes, it does add up. [Dravid] said, "Okay, you're playing a four-day game. You come and day in, day out, two days before the game, you're practising so hard. You're hitting so many balls. So you've essentially played two days even before the game has actually started.
I would sit in the hotel room and think, oh, this is not going right, that is not going right. I need a lot of this, some of that, so on and so forth. Essentially I would have already played two days and then I play a four-day game. So I'm playing six, seven days without a break. Mentally switching off and learning that your break days have to be break days was key.
The New Zealand tour is coming up. Is it something you have been thinking about?
Yes, but I made sure it's under control and not only thinking about it or stressing about it or planning about. So yes, a little thinking. I have watched the games England and New Zealand played and just had a little bit of an idea about what can come when India goes to New Zealand, but [without] getting overly engrossed - understand the challenges and tweak whatever needs tweaking.
What are some things you have noted?
Obviously their fast bowling attack and how they operate. Looked into what are the things they do with the new ball, how they come back in the second spell, and how they bowl with the old ball, things like that.
You haven't got a first-class century overseas in something like 18 innings. Is that something you've identified and want to check off?
I want to focus more on the process. If I can follow the things that are working for me and do that overseas, why will it not work for me there as well?

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo