On a damp September evening at Greater Noida’s Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik Stadium in 2016, Mayank Agarwal approached a senior press photographer with a request for some standalone clicks. The Duleep Trophy final was meandering towards an easy win for Agarwal’s India Blue, and this rather innocent act of self-indulgence by the promising cricketer was duly obliged by the veteran photographer. It took fame, then an elusive chimera, a little over two years to arrive at Agarwal’s footsteps, and far from requesting for some space, India’s latest run-machine has finally seized the ground he wanted.
A record-breaking Ranji season and an unyielding run-glut propelled him to national reckoning, and after a wretched run by the Indian openers in the overseas cycle, the 27-year-old has made it to the 15-member Indian squad for the upcoming home Test series against the West Indies.
The feeling, Mayank tells Firstpost, has sunk in, and the young man says that talks of impending selection never affected him over the course of the year.
“I am looking forward to it. It was not as if I was not expecting it, but I was more neutral to it. I wasn’t thinking about it all the time.
“I am just going to continue with whatever has been working for me, and repeat the processes that have been working well for me. I plan to take it day by day. I am in a good mind frame, and I would like to stick to it. I plan to play the game as it is, and the same goes with technique,” he said.
Mayank, in fact, has been in contention for a national berth in both Test and limited-overs’ formats, and the recent Asia Cup snub raised fresh calls for his inclusion. The right-handed opener responded to every rejection with his bat, and a 90 for Indian Board President’s XI against the touring West Indies on 29 September — the day the squad for West Indies series was to be announced — swung the stakes decisively in his favour.
The presence of Rahul Dravid also helped, and the India ‘A’ coach ensured Mayank, despite repeatedly being overlooked by the selectors, was in right spirits.
“To be honest, I was just focussing on what was in my control and doing what I can do. It was nice to have Rahul sir there, and guiding me through it. He told me that all a player can do is score runs, put in the performances and leave the rest. I decided not to spend my energies on things that I can’t control.
We spoke a lot about batting and technique. Also on how to approach batting. He told me to stay in this mindset and keep working hard and look to keep improving my game, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Besides Dravid, Agarwal’s childhood coach RX Murli’s contribution in his overall growth as a cricketer can’t be stated enough. Before the start of 2017-18 Ranji season, Murli drilled what he calls a “one-ball zone” into his ward. As the season progressed, Mayank developed a liking for this approach and eventually perfected the art of entering it almost at will.
This method, Murli says, works on the basis of identifying the root cause of emotions, and addressing it in a metronomic, process-driven way.
“Once you understand and figure out the cause of your nervousness, anxiety, excitement or happiness, you learn to figure out the way to handle those emotions. Earlier, every time Mayank was put in a crunch situation, he used to get anxious because he wanted to do well. So we realised the solution is to stay in the present,” says Murli.
“This game is about playing one ball at a time, and he started training himself to stay in that one-ball zone. He kept repeating that for 400-500 balls. That helped him score runs. The moment he got one big score, he realsied that this mind frame is helping him score. We call it bubble. That bubble is the ideal performance state of mind.”
To his credit, Mayank embraced the approach with all sincerity and acknowledges the difference ‘staying in the bubble’ has made to his career.
“We spoke about this approach about 16-18 months back, and the focus since then has been on ‘this’ ball, and not think about the ball that has been bowled, or will be bowled next. The thrust has been to play the game ball-by-ball for long periods, and it helps you stay in the present and focus on the things in hand,” he said.
Like all bubbles though, this Murli-Mayank creation is not foolproof, and self-doubt plays a vital role in bursting it. Mayank started the 2017-18 Ranji season with a brace of blobs, but that did little to question the efficacy of this approach. International cricket though is different, and failures have a way to force the mind into an apprehensive overdrive. Murli understands the challenge and insists that no one, apart from his ward, has to fight that battle.
“That is something he has to figure out. The moment you start thinking about failure, the positive bubble that you create around yourself breaks. Then, it’s a big journey to recreate that bubble. He has identified the things that help him get in that state of mind. Once he is in that bubble, everything else flows like a process,” the coach says.
Mayank asserts he is ready for the international grind and is keeping his mind uncluttered by not thinking about factors that are beyond his control.
“I am not thinking about the pressure of playing international cricket, because these things are not in my control. what is in my control is to go out there, give my best, bat to the best of my abilities and try and score runs. And I am just going to take it day by day,” he signs off.