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Cricket news - The marathon man who cut no corner

Having been pushed into a literal and metaphorical backdrop by the cameramen when he walked out to bat, Mayank Agarwal was dead-centre and front in their frame at the end of Day 2

Two cameramen moved to a spot on the ground straight down from the home dressing room in Visakhapatnam on Wednesday (October 2). As soon as the anthems were completed, it was imperative to cut to the scenes of Rohit Sharma taking his first steps as an India Test opener. Their need to capture the moment squeezed Mayank Agarwal somewhat into a literal and metaphorical backdrop. Instead of scurrying through, he waited for them and Rohit to take a few steps ahead, and then followed them on to the field with a skyward glance and a silent prayer.

Around the brouhaha surrounding India's latest Test match opener, it would have been easy to forget that it was a moment in itself for Mayank too. He may have been the senior partner in this newly-formed union, but he was still a junior, starting only his fifth Test and the very first on Indian soil and now, with a third different partner. He'd already made three half centuries from seven innings, including one on debut at MCG. But three of his last four scores were 5, 16 and 4 and given the recent churn at the top (six different combinations in 2018) and a trigger-happy management, any protraction of that run could begin to get uncomfortable.

If he was nervous, Mayank did well to hide. An active practitioner of Vipassana - a form of meditation - since 18, Mayank also adeptly handled the buzz at the other end - by simply keeping it at the other end.

South Africa, clearly having analysed Mayank's videos work, attacked him upfront with the short ball angled into the body. Kagiso Rabada stationed three slips and a gully waiting for the awkward fend. At times on the recent tour of the Caribbean, Mayank and his colleagues had been twisted open by a few such deliveries from Kemar Roach. But these were different conditions and a different Mayank. Given the lack of bounce, he was only slightly twisted. And with each passing fend - and there were three in the first half-hour - between the third slip and gully, the SG ball softened a little more while the sapping humidity reduced the potency of Rabada's bumper.

It was post this first eight-over period, coinciding with the arrival of Keshav Maharaj, that Mayank tweaked his game ever so slightly. In early July last year, after failures in two four-day 'A' games in England, Mayank had returned to Bangalore and worked extensively on getting more upright in his stance to adapt to the bouncing ball - which served him well in Australia. Midway through the innings here in Vizag, he re-employed the crouch in his stance that was integral to his setup at the crease during his 1100+ scoring season in 2017-18.

The return to an old method was not incidental, but calculated to play late on a slow and low surface. The cut past short third-man and backward point against the spinners became a staple shot with seven of his 15 fours against them coming through this region. "There are these little adjustments you have to do in different conditions," he would say later. "In Australia there is more bounce so you have to be standing a bit more upright. I saw the ball started keeping a bit low [here]. So these little little adjustments you have to make in your game."

It served as an antithesis to the 'play your natural game' mantra constantly advocated to his opening partner, a pleasant riposte to some of its obvious vices and flaws. Mayank, a product now of first-class red-ball cricket, here on red-ball merit, was happy to indulge in some of the nuances of the red-ball format, even if it took him 114 balls to get to his first 50 while his more famous partner got to it in 84.

But this was also an innings that displayed the deeper gears and problem-solving abilities of the modern red-ball batsman. When the two left-arm spinners, Keshav Maharaj and Senuran Muthusamy, turned to restrictive lines by bowling over the wicket into the rough with fielders manning the legside boundary, Mayank pulled out the reverse sweep through backward point. When that area was manned, he hit the ball inside-out over extra cover. Even when he didn't reach the pitch off the ball with his shimmies, he would go through with his lofted shot to take it over the long-on or mid-wicket fielders.

The second and third fifties consequently came off 90 balls each. Virat Kohli, he would say, offered the same advice on two occasions to him: 'Bat long'. Those associated with batting, like Kohli, will always tell you, greed is good. But Kohli needn't have bothered. Mayank has a triple hundred in Ranji Trophy cricket and his last four first class centuries - 161, 176, 220 and 215 (today) - display a positively gluttonous appetite for runs.

By the end, he was dispatching South Africa's bowling on a whim, motoring from 150 to 200 off just 64 balls, without taking any additional risks along the way. A marathon runner himself, Mayank knows what it takes to go long without cutting corners. "When I was training before that 2017-18 season, we [his coach RX Murali] made sure we bat five-six hours. We would make sure that we would have two and half hour session, take a little break and then bat again. So it is just preparing in that manner, preparing that for long hours combined with long distance running has helped me," he would say.

Barring a few nervous start-stop sprints as he approached his maiden Test hundred, Mayank didn't stop running, completing as many as 64 singles and 11 twos and threes over two muggy Vizag days, and moving not very differently to how he did on the first day. Of course, on Thursday, when the camera crew stepped back on to the capture to the close of play, Mayank was dead-centre and front in their frame, now leading the team team back into the dressing room.

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