<
>

How Mayank Agarwal countered South Africa's best-laid plans

play
Cheteshwar Pujara explains why Mayank Agarwal is never nervous in the nineties (1:11)

The India opener hit two sixes and a four to go from 87 to 103 in the Pune Test against South Africa (1:11)

There are no secrets in international cricket. An air of mystery may briefly surround a debutant, but by the time he's batted or bowled for a session, dossiers containing the smallest detail about his technique are already on the way.

Mayank Agarwal had played four Tests before South Africa met him for the first time. Even if they hadn't spent as much time planning against him as they might have for, say, Cheteshwar Pujara or Virat Kohli, they would have arrived in India with a fair idea of how to bowl to him.

During the first two Tests in Visakhapatnam and Pune, some of those plans have been evident, and there have been moments when they have threatened to get his wicket. And yet, here we are, three innings into the series: 330 runs, two hundreds, an average of 110.00.

There was a fair amount of grass on the first-day pitch in Pune, and the fast bowlers could extract a bit of seam movement and bounce right through the first session, and sporadically thereafter. South Africa had three quicks in their attack, and each of them tested Agarwal early, homing in on the same technical issue: his tendency to get closed off with his front-and-across trigger movement.

It's a good position to get into against the full ball outside off stump, and quite naturally he's an excellent driver through the off side, whether it's the straight-bat punch, where his power comes from his front-foot weight transfer, or that whippy drive with the bottom-hand flourish. It's also a good springboard for the square-cut, helping keep the batsman side-on and in the ideal position to slap away at any width.

Agarwal was quick to pounce on any opportunities to play these shots, and 36 of his 63 runs against pace came via the cover drive, the cut and the off drive.

But that front-and-across movement can also get batsmen in trouble against the incoming ball. Vernon Philander had a tight lbw call turned down - it returned an umpire's-call verdict on both line and height when reviewed - when Agarwal was on 5.

Agarwal can also get into awkward positions against the rising ball on or just outside off stump, thanks to that front-and-across press. Batsmen often hop back and across to ride the bounce of this kind of delivery, and get behind the line - close your eyes and think of Rahul Dravid negotiating this kind of ball.

But since Agarwal starts from such a closed-off position, his back foot has a longer distance to travel before his body is behind the line of the ball. When he's facing a bowler of Kagiso Rabada's pace, there usually isn't enough time for this, and he ends up jabbing away from his body, employing a roll of his wrists to try and keep the ball down.

WATCH: South Africa's bowling coach Vincent Barnes says Rabada is nearing his best

It's a risky shot when there's a bit of extra bounce, which Rabada can extract from almost any pitch. On 1, Agarwal edged one of these wristy jabs and sent it flying between third slip and gully.

The other weakness of the front-and-across press is that it can cramp the batsman for room against the short ball at the body. Agarwal was batting on 9 when he ducked into one such delivery from Anrich Nortje, who hit the high 140 kph consistently on debut, and the ball pinged off the top of his helmet.

But opening batsmen expect this test of their technique, particularly when there's a bit of help for the quicks, and learn to accept that they need some luck early in their innings. It helps to have a flawless technique, of course, but who has that?

Having come through that testing early period, Agarwal became increasingly secure. He got a bit of a helping hand in moving his innings into gear, with Nortje following that bouncer up with four half-volleys in his next seven balls, and all of them flew to the off-side boundary.

Thereafter, Agarwal was in for the long haul.

South Africa still tried various things to get him out. Nortje, for instance, returned after lunch with a short leg and a leg gully in place, and bowled short and into Agarwal's body from both over and around the wicket. It must have caused a bit of discomfort, but the impressive thing about Agarwal's response was his decisiveness: he either ducked or went for the pull or hook. He didn't get trapped in between the two options, or fend at the ball with his gloves rising to protect his face.

There was one hook that he didn't fully control, but he kept it down, having got into a good position before he played it, moving back and across so the ball was over his left shoulder.

There was only so long that Nortje could keep going with this line of attack. By the fifth over of his spell, and the 43rd of the innings, the ball was sitting up with no venom, and Agarwal pulled him for two dismissive fours.

"When it comes to short-ball bowling, sometimes it can give you an advantage as a batting team, because if you try and use it too often, the bowler, especially in this weather, gets tired," was how Cheteshwar Pujara summed up Nortje's efforts, at the end of the day's play. "But at the same time I think we handled it well."

The left-arm spinner, Keshav Maharaj, tried to keep Agarwal quiet with a packed off-side field: long-off, three men in the covers, backward point, slip, and occasionally silly point as well. He left one big gap, though, between backward point and the squarest of the covers, in an attempt to tempt Agarwal into cutting good-length balls.

Agarwal was wise to this, and he kept punching into the covers with a straight rather than angled bat. Perhaps Maharaj could have forced an indiscretion had he shown a little more discipline; instead he gave away a pair of early boundaries with flighted half-volleys.

In any case, it was only after facing 36 balls from Maharaj that Agarwal finally managed to pierce that gap to the left of square cover, off a ball that was just short enough for him to stab it away with an open face. That shot brought up his half-century, and the fielder immediately dropped back onto the boundary.

At this time, Agarwal was batting with Pujara, who was dominating his individual battle with Maharaj. Pujara used his feet at every opportunity, and got into excellent positions to whip the left-arm spinner against the turn. Because of this, Maharaj always needed an extra leg-side fielder against Pujara. What this also meant, though, was less protection square of the wicket on the off side when he overcompensated and dropped his length back.

Pujara moved to his fifty with a pair of boundaries off Maharaj - a dancing flick wide of mid-on, and a square cut - in the 50th over of India's innings. At this point, he had scored 27 off 36 balls against Maharaj, while Agarwal had made 23 off 60.

Agarwal had been content to play his own game against Maharaj, uninfluenced by Pujara's at the other end. He didn't try and leave his crease, or try and sweep or manufacture any other shot against the turn. Through his innings, according to ESPNcricinfo's data, he only played three balls from Maharaj into the forward square leg, backward square leg, and fine leg sectors of the field.

Pujara fell to Rabada just before tea, and Agarwal would join him in the dressing room shortly after. Both were out in near-identical fashion, playing defensive shots to balls that straightened in the fourth-stump channel, and getting caught by Faf du Plessis falling to his left at first slip.

By then, though, Agarwal had brought up his century, and broken free of the Maharaj strangle in the most emphatic fashion, going from 87 to 99 with a pair of majestic straight sixes. A late cut off Philander in the next over, a shot that showed off his deft hands, moved him into three figures.

"He's an experienced player, he's scored so many first-class runs, which has helped him a lot," Pujara said of Agarwal. "When it comes to being nervous in the 90s, I think he's someone who is fearless, and since he has scored so many first-class tons, he knows how to convert his fifties into big scores, and once he goes past hundred, as we saw in the last game, he can score heavily and he can score a big hundred.

"That habit has come from first-class cricket, and I've seen him bat in first-class cricket. I didn't have to tell him much. To be honest, we were just communicating about what [South Africa's] gameplan was. At times, if there was an error from his batting, I would just tell him to play close to his body when his bat was going away, but apart from that I think he's batting really well and I don't have to guide him much."

All that first-class experience that Pujara alluded to has also helped Agarwal become selective in his strokeplay, depending on the conditions and the bowling. The lofted drive, for instance, was a regular feature in Visakhapatnam, and made its first appearance when he was batting on 32. He played that shot off Dane Piedt, who turned out to be a weak link in South Africa's attack in that game.

Here, Agarwal was facing a better-balanced attack capable of maintaining pressure from both ends. His range of strokes, therefore, was less expansive; there were no sweeps, paddles or reverse-sweeps, and the lofted hits only came out of the kitbag when he was in his 80s.

Agarwal's centuries in this series, in effect, have both been ideal responses to the circumstances they came in. Not much more can be asked of an opener playing in just his third Test series.