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Mayank Agarwal changed the course of the series


Mayank_Agarwal_India_Test_CricketBefore the start of the Boxing Day Test, India’s opening partnerships away from home in 2018 made for unpleasant viewing. As many as four openers were used in different combinations over the year, but none made their mark at the top of the order. The partnerships away from home in 2018 until the Boxing Day Test read - 16, 30, 28, 11, 7, 17, 50, 19, 0, 0, 60, 60, 37, 4, 6, 1, 3, 63, 6 and 0.

A total of 418 runs in 20 innings at an average of 20.90. It was ugly, and possibly the root cause behind India's series losses in South Africa and England. The likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli walked in without a solid platform and suffered with the new ball still moving about. 

India sorely needed an opener who could stay put, make runs or at least blunt the new ball. KL Rahul and Murali Vijay appeared listless while Shikhar Dhawan was far too inconsistent with far too many glitches in his technique. The young and exciting Prithvi Shaw entered the picture and a ton on debut against the West Indies at home made him a certain starter in Australia, even as grumblings involving Mayank Agarwal not starting made the rounds. 

Unfortunately, Shaw was injured in the warm-up game ahead of the Tests in Australia. Murali Vijay, benefitting from a ton in the tour match, and KL Rahul, on the back of a 149 in the dead rubber against England, opened. They made partnerships of 3, 63, 6 and 0; and India were on the hunt for a back-up opener for the Boxing Day Test. 

There was one who had been waiting in the wings for a long time - Mayank Agarwal. He was promptly called up, having been on the shadow tour with Rahul Dravid's India A side. 

This decision perhaps changed the complexion of the series. For starters, India's major issue in the first two Tests was the manner in which Nathan Lyon dominated their batsmen. The off-spinner picked up five-wicket hauls in both matches and was threatening even on green strips. 

Mayank bruised Lyon's confidence after blunting the new ball effectively in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne. He slapped the spinner through the cover boundary and took long strides forward against him. Importantly, he was positive against Lyon and remained so until the last ball he faced in the series. 

Lyon's morale was destroyed in that mini-onslaught. His success against right-handers stems from the fact that he turns the ball into them while also generating drift into them. This virtually negates the off side for batsmen, who had to rely solely on the gaps in the leg-side - which were minimal - to rotate strike. The extra bounce from Lyon’s height brought leg slip and short leg into play and he enjoyed immense success with this formula.

What Mayank did was stay leg side of the ball, opening up the off-side and even thumping Lyon down the ground. Even when he stepped out, Mayank moved in the direction of mid-on. The off-side had to be plugged. Paine did not help Lyon by constantly setting defensive fields. Lyon moved around the wicket even if Mayank opened up the off-side off two balls and the mid-on immediately went back, allowing easy singles. 

"He [Mayank] made Lyon bowl the majority of his overs from around the wicket, where Nathan would prefer to bowl over. He has been able to bowl over in the first two Test matches; because of his [Mayank’s] intent he opened up scoring on both sides of the wicket,” Michael Clarke said. 

In the MCG Test, the Aussie off-spinner bowled 61 overs for just the one wicket and was evidently ineffective. At Sydney, he picked up four wickets, including that of Mayank. But it came after the opener had taken him on with ease and elegance. Two sixes in an over was followed by an ugly loft that saw him lose his wicket but the battle had been won. In India's marathon 622-run innings, Lyon was largely ineffective when Australia needed him to be deadly. He picked up the wickets of Pujara and Vihari (the latter off a wrong decision), but it came long after India had established their supremacy. 

“The best thing was the way Mayank Agarwal batted. You have given a young man a Test cap debut and that too when it's not been the best of times at Perth, two openers have been axed and then he walks in, plays brilliantly. I thought he was absolutely calm and composed, except for the initial nerves which I'm pretty sure anybody would feel - he did not try and overhit anything,” Clarke said.

In the fervour surrounding the series win, Pujara's and Bumrah's performances, and Pant's onslaught and sledging, Mayank's role has been underrated. But pick on the details and it can be argued that the Karnataka opener virtually changed the complexion of the series by taking on the wily off-spinner who ruled the roost in this part of the world.

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