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Feature

Mayank Agarwal fights against himself, and the conditions, to come up trumps

Karnataka, at the Chinnaswamy, were in a hole against Saurashtra, till their captain hauled them out

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
08-Feb-2023
Mayank Agarwal led the way for Karnataka with another century, Karnataka vs Saurashtra, Ranji Trophy 2022-23 semi-final, Bengaluru, February 8, 2023

Mayank Agarwal was far from his usual flamboyant self as he held the Saurashtra bowlers at bay  •  PTI

Mayank Agarwal was mid-pitch, shadow jabbing, angry after playing a delivery he should have left alone. He slapped the right side of the grille of his helmet. He then took fresh guard.
Agarwal had just been reprieved, when on 13, by Snell Patel at second slip off Prerak Mankad. It was barely an hour into the opening morning of the Ranji Trophy semi-final on a green-tinged Chinnaswamy deck against a fired-up Saurashtra attack that was missing their inspirational leader, Jaydev Unadkat, who is away on national duty.
His existence until that point had been a struggle. It was a fight against his own batting style, which can be flamboyant when he is going well. It was a fight against the surface and conditions. Very early, you knew this wasn't going to be a deck where you could simply hit through the line like batters of his kind will likely do come April at the IPL.
At the time of the dropped catch, Agarwal had been opened up thrice. Twice, the ball landed in front of the slips. Once, he was beaten. Saurashtra's synchronised clapping, their method of creating "some noise" to encourage the bowlers, had been gaining steam. Agarwal knew he was in the middle of a proper battle.
R Samarth, his fellow opener, was out playing a nothing shot to the slips. Chetan Sakariya, the left-arm seamer, was making the ball talk by creating wicked angles and swinging the ball back in late to the right-hand batters. On occasions, he slanted them across and got them to hold its line too. This was a proper examination for Agarwal and the other batters.
That nick to Snell ought to have caused plenty of doubts in Agarwal's mind. Instead, it appeared to give him clarity.
For the rest of the day, Agarwal was a picture of composure. His unbeaten 110 off 246 balls, which propped up Karnataka from the depths of 112 for 5 to 229 for 5 at stumps, was an innings of immense self-restraint and discipline outside off, especially against the fast bowlers who kept bounding in all day long with the surface doing just about enough. As he walked off with Sharath Srinivas, with whom he had put together an unbroken 117 runs, there was applause even from members of the opposition.
Agarwal's first authoritative boundary, not long after he had been dropped, was a pristine on-drive that he met well forward, almost walking into the stroke to negate the late movement. That was to be the first of several instances when he stood on middle, seemingly to try and get closer to the line outside off; he would shuffle out and get into a solid position, head right over the ball with soft hands pressing down on the stroke.
Until lunch, Agarwal was largely in a shell. Holding himself back while cover driving, leaving deliveries around the fourth stump. Against Sakariya, his technique was to bat well outside the crease and have a shorter back lift to ensure he got down on the ball early enough to avoid being hit on the pads.
The reward came in the form of juicy half-volleys on his pads that he kept putting away. Against Dharmendrasinh Jadeja's left-arm spin, he was a little more fluent as his innings progressed, especially while stepping out and hitting with the spin, a shot that he is very good at.
Agarwal brought up his half-century off 105 deliveries, and the journey to the next fifty took even longer - 110 deliveries - but in grinding the bowlers down he displayed steely resolve. For a fleeting moment in the 90s, when Agarwal got to his hundred with back-to-back boundaries, it appeared as if he would look to break free. But Karnataka weren't out of choppy waters yet, and with their top order undone, and a rookie wicketkeeper-batter in Sharath Srinivas for company, there was a simple matter of putting mind over matter and batting on.
At the start of the season, Agarwal had spoken of wanting to recreate the magic of 2017-18, where he hit over 1160 runs in 13 innings at an average of 105.45. On Wednesday, he was closing in on 800, perhaps with two or three more cracks left at breaching the 1000-run mark. Maybe his knock was also a quiet reminder to the national selectors that he was far from done, even if the route back to the Test team is far from straightforward.
India is a separate story. One thing is for sure - at 31, Agarwal the captain clearly has a lot to give to Karnataka.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo