Mayank Agarwal has self-awareness and clarity of thought in his approach to the game - that much is crystal clear. In a way, being a late bloomer for India - he broke through into the Test team as a 28-year old - has given him perspective about the need to stay in the present and keep his game clutter-free to attain consistency over sustained periods.
In this year's IPL, he will team up at Kings XI Punjab again with his best friend and best man at his wedding, KL Rahul, along with a host of other Karnataka players, under head coach Anil Kumble, to chart what he hoped will be an impact year. How will he go about it? He tells us in this interview.
Bio-bubbles, testing, protocols, quarantine - you must be tired of it all.
Well, the pandemic has taught me to be appreciative of things. I'm grateful for the lives we have. I'm not going to be sitting in my hotel room and thinking about the restrictions. The fact that we've even come close to playing has taken a huge amount of effort from different people, so I'm appreciative of the very fact that cricket is back.
Also, spare a thought for athletes from other sports in India. They've had so much disruption. Personally, I've used this time at home to read a lot, do some cooking, help with household chores, do a lot of gardening, and all the things that you generally tend to miss out on with the kind of touring lives we have as cricketers. I'm not complaining at all. Yes, there are rules, I will abide by them and co-operate in whichever way I have to, instead of complaining about the situation. It's the same for everybody.
How tough was it, returning to cricket after five months?
For the best part of the last ten to 12 years, I've been playing professional cricket. So a five-month break hasn't taken that much of a toll, honestly. The only challenge has been to maintain continuity, which hasn't always been possible in Bangalore. But in general, it hasn't been tough for me, personally.
What are you looking forward to the most this IPL?
I've been scoring runs at different levels, but the fact remains I haven't had a breakthrough IPL season yet [in ten years now], so I'm looking forward to correcting that. Also, I'm looking forward to being part of a winning IPL team. I came close in 2017 [with Rising Pune Supergiant].
How does the familiarity with the Kings XI set-up help?
KL [Rahul] and I started together, played India Under-19 together, we've opened in Tests. We've been part of a World Cup team. This is his first time as captain, and I'm excited for him. We've both played under Anil [Kumble] bhai at RCB. As a coach, Anil bhai has been meticulous in his planning and has given us specific roles. When someone gives you clarity to the extent he has, it gives you a clear picture of where you stand and what you should do to get to the next level.
"Cricket at the highest level is a confidence game, and when you have a captain who is always focusing on the positives, it's nice to have that reiteration that you're good enough to tackle any challenge"
Will it take some pressure off you, knowing there are some explosive batsmen in the team?
We're a fun group of players at Kings XI. [Chris] Gayle, KL, [Nicholas] Pooran, [Glenn] Maxwell - all of them love to express themselves on the field. Anytime you go out to bat after, say, a Gayle or Rahul, your job automatically becomes a tad easier because even if one of them has started off well, the pressure isn't staring at you when you walk in.
You like opening, but in Kings XI you've generally batted at three. You had a few sessions to prepare in Bangalore before flying out. Did you work on anything in particular?
As soon as the lockdown was lifted, I started training with my personal coach, RX Murali. I was in touch with Anil bhai regularly during the lockdown period. He was a great source of guidance. He's studied my game, so he spoke to me about areas I can look at improving, aspects I can consider incorporating, the scoring areas I can possibly open up. Also, I've been working on a few things on the mental side of things. So while training, I've tried to incorporate all this into practice. A month's time [in UAE] is good enough for us to assess the wickets and train accordingly. Obviously the conditions will be much different to India in October-November. I think the plans we've put in place and the little bit of training we've done [in Bangalore] will come in handy.
You've been part of the Indian team for over 18 months now. What are your learnings from there?
Everyone's in an environment where they're striving to learn and pick up new tricks. We feed off each other; there's no senior-junior thing. Cricket at the highest level is a confidence game, and when you have a captain who is always focusing on the positives, it's nice to have that reiteration that you're good enough to tackle any challenge.
In that time, have there been any specific interactions you've had with someone that have helped particularly?
I remember feeling a bit of pressure to cement my position in the Test team during the West Indies tour last year. I hadn't made too many runs in the first Test, and in between games Rohit Sharma could sense I was off a bit. He came forward to offer me some guidance, which I am extremely grateful for. We spoke a lot about how that Test series in West Indies was a different challenge for me. I had scored two half-centuries in the Test series against Australia on the last tour, so he impressed upon me that I shouldn't let that extra pressure of expectation get to me and overthink the process in the Caribbean. It definitely helped having that chat as I did go into the second West Indies Test in a more relaxed frame of mind.
Two months later you made your first Test century, opened with Rohit, and put on a triple-century opening stand.
Yes, that was a special partnership at home against South Africa. I really needed a consistent home season and wanted to get a big score after three half-centuries abroad and not converting any of them into a big hundred. It was an amazing experience opening with Rohit and watching his fearless attacking strokeplay from the other end. Apart from that innings being my first Test century, it also happened to be Rohit's first century as Test opener. But most importantly, we put on a massive opening stand which set the tone for a number of good Test wins during the home season.
You've often spoken of RX Murali and Rahul Dravid's influence, and the positive vibes of the Indian dressing room. Is there anyone else who has been instrumental?
Ray Jennings played a big part early on. I interacted with him when I was invited to be part of a talent camp for uncapped Indian players conducted by RCB in late 2010. He was very impressed with my work ethic and ability to play shots at the top of the order, and RCB signed me as one of the uncapped players for the 2011 IPL. What I enjoyed the most about working with Ray during those three seasons at RCB was his honest and direct critical feedback, and he was someone who told you things you didn't want to hear, and knew when a player needed a dressing down if they were falling out of line. I will always respect those years with him as a coach. It toughened me up to face the challenges of professional cricket.
When you started off, the perception was that you were suited more to white-ball cricket. Today you're known to be a formidable red-ball batsman.
Yes, that was the perception early on, as many had followed my one-day performances in the 2010 U-19 World Cup, and the early seasons in the IPL with RCB. From my point of view, I always knew that to be considered among the great Indian batsmen, I needed to excel at the highest level and play Test cricket for India. The 2017-18 Ranji season was that watershed moment in my career where I improved tremendously as a red-ball player, and that successful Ranji season followed by more red-ball runs for India A in 2018 gave me the confidence in my ability to succeed at Test match level.
A lot has been said already about that Ranji season in 2017-18, where you made 1000-plus runs. Tell us something we don't know about that season.
I was this close to being dropped that season. I wasn't in good form for a couple of months going in. I had a poor 2017 IPL with Rising Pune, and had a bad start to the Ranji season as well with two ducks.
Vinay Kumar has always looked to help and elevate young Karnataka players throughout his career, and that's something we have always admired about him. More than him just backing me to play another game after those two ducks was his support where he said that he believed in my ability to succeed at this level and it's not just a matter of one game but that he wanted me to deliver for the team for the rest of the season. It was a huge thing for me that he, as captain, had that trust and faith in my ability. I just feel happy that I could repay his faith in me with a 300 in the next game, and that started off a great run for me in red-ball cricket, both for the rest of the Ranji season and in the India A four-day games leading into my Test debut in Melbourne. That has effected a turnaround of sorts in my career.