Mayank’s Hard Work & Pant’s Talent: A Tale of Contrasting Fortunes
Mayank Agarwal cementing his place in the team and Rishabh Pant faltering under pressure is a tale of contrasts.
As Mayank Agarwal moved from 50 to 100 to 150 to 200, raising his bat with a shy smile that echoed relief each time, the commentators on air (okay, mostly Sunil Gavaskar) could not help mutter the words, “Nothing has come easy to him.”
Almost like a refrain. And to ensure that no one missed out on it, he repeated it all over again in the post session shows. “Nothing has come easy to Agarwal.”
The cricketer from Karnataka had to grind, and grind hard, to make his Test debut in Australia late last year. Having made his maiden First-Class appearance way back in 2013, Agarwal had to patiently wait for an opening in the national team, a wait that had no definite end considering the plethora of openers available in the Indian domestic circuit.
There was Murali Vijay, and there was Shikhar Dhawan, who had sealed his spot with a blistering ton on debut. Gautam Gambhir was still lurking around, and KL Rahul was the youngster to watch out for. Priyank Panchal had piled on truckloads of runs in the domestic scene, and so had Faiz Fazal. Ravikumar Samarth, who made his debut at around the same time as Agarwal, too got the attention of the cricketing realm with 'daddy hundreds'. With stiff competition all around, Agarwal’s future in cricket revolved around luck and plenty of hard work.
The slice of luck came knocking on India’s tour Down Under in December in 2018, after Prithvi Shaw was left with an injured ankle during a practice game. Having sweat it out for five years, where Agarwal amassed over ten thousand runs across formats, the call-up was a reward for his consistent perseverance, his strong temperament and his undying determination to pile on runs whenever he walked out to bat.
Starting off as a dasher, the 28-year old transformed his game to emerge as one of the best players in the longer formats. Correcting his technique against spin, reworking his stance against pace and playing according to the situation for years ensured that by the time Virat Kohli handed him his Test cap, Agarwal was ready and raring to leave his mark in various shores.
Th talent was evident. So was the zeal. But did he have the courage to grab his spot with emphatic showings?
... And Then There’s Pant
A few months before Agarwal’s debut, yet another Indian talent had been making waves. Aged just 20, Rishabh Pant received a call-up to the Test side months after a freak injury to Wriddhiman Saha that had gone undetected on the tour to South Africa. With the Bengal keeper expected to be out for the series against Australia, Pant received his golden chance against England in August last year. With Saha not the best of batters, the Delhiite had to keep things simple.
Play maturely, play aggressively and play to be in for the long haul.
A fine 114 at The Oval followed by a couple of nineties at home. A series of low scores, where he did not score 40 even once in six innings was soon followed by his epic 159 at Sydney. With his batting skills overshadowing Saha’s keeping talent, Pant was soon earmarked as the heir to MS Dhoni. Despite the lull thereafter in the series against New Zealand, Pant was at it again in the IPL this year where he won his franchise Delhi Capitals stiff games. Head coach Ricky Ponting was impressed. Mentor Sourav Ganguly too was all praise in the time leading upto his World Cup selection.
Two years earlier, Pant had displayed his dedication and his mental strength as he turned out to play one of his toughest knocks hours after his father had passed away.
Tough-spirited with oodles of talent, Pant left the men who matter - from chief selector MSK Prasad to head coach Ravi Shastri to skipper Kohli - in awe.
“He has got a lot of skill and talent. It's about winning and finishing games. It is about giving him a bit more space and ease himself into international cricket and not put too much pressure. International cricket you need to tackle pressure differently. He has come a long way since he's started. If he plays like this regularly, we will see his potential shine for India," the India captain had stated after Pant’s unbeaten 65 had helped the team over the line in the third T20I against Windies in August this year.
So, what has changed since then? The youngster, who constantly kept bowlers on his toes in IPL, and who has all the shots in his array, was dropped in favour of Saha for the opening Test against South Africa at Vizag, with his immediate future with the team looking blurry.
All About Latching Onto Chances
What Agarwal did so effortlessly - seal his spot despite strong competitors around - is what Pant failed to replicate. The only difference was that Pant was profusely backed, and had little to no competition. The Karnataka cricketer, well aware that a couple of failures will see him back in the domestic fold, maybe for good, has been able to keep players like Abhimanyu Easwaran, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Shubman Gill at bay by playing positive and consistent cricket.
Just eight innings into his Test career, Agarwal averages 61.25 with his knocks reading 76, 42, 77, 5, 16, 55, 4 and 215.
His latest was a tribute to the hard hours that he has spent on the dust bowls in India, converting fifties into hundreds into double tons into triple centuries. The right-hander who was aware that nothing short of a big knock would have got attention, has carried forward his mindset into the international stage, and has shone in tough conditions against genuine quicks.
Pant, on the other hand, has let go of his repeated opportunities, and averages 22.90 in ODIs, 20.31 in T20Is and a little over 44 in the longest format. While it might be argued that his tons have not been scored in the easiest conditions in Tests, what he has desperately lacked is consistency and the hunger to show that he can succeed. Shastri had been scathing in his remarks of Pant after the tour of Windies, after the latter failed to learn his lessons, getting out to rash shots match-after-match.
"We'll let him be but at times when you see a shot, like the first ball dismissal in Trinidad, if he repeats that, then he will be told. There will be a rap on the knuckles, talent or no talent," the head coach had said. "As simple as that. Because you are letting the team down.”
The next step, then, for Pant is too go back to the domestic circuit, tackle varied situations and emerge hungrier and more consistent. Taking a leaf out of Agarwal’s book might not be the worst option.
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