Five years since a run-rich domestic season vaulted him into the India team, Mayank Agarwal begins another campaign with the aim to recreate past magic. He speaks to Aadya Sharma on his hunger to score big, dealing with disappointments, being a leader, and the IPL 2023 auction, which could determine the next phase of his Twenty20 career.

It is minutes before half past three in the afternoon. The shadows have lengthened at the M Chinnaswamy stadium. Mayank Agarwal is in his own space, seated on a plastic chair by the ropes, padded up, his bat tucked between his legs. He is staring deeply into nothingness, gently twiddling the tip of the protruding grip with his thumb. The meditative trance wavers only when the shrill stadium bell splutters into action, signalling the end of the tea break.

It’s Karnataka’s opening fixture of the Ranji Trophy season. Mayank walks to the rest of his protective gear, laid out on the grass, puts it back on to sweat it out, once again. He is on a mission to recreate past magic.

Five years ago, another Ranji season began rather ominously when he stumbled to a pair of ducks against Hyderabad. Early setbacks can be dispiriting. Not for Mayank. Next match, he cracked an unbeaten 304.

“The thought is to emulate the 2017/18 season,” Mayank tells Wisden India days ahead of his opening fixture of the 2022/23 season. “I am preparing according to that.”

It was an incredible campaign. In the Ranji Trophy, Mayank piled up 1,160 runs at 105.45, five centuries included. In the List A matches that followed, he was equally prolific, scoring 723 runs at 90.37, nearly twice more than the next best. For an India Test team in desperate search of a fresh set of openers, Mayank was suddenly the perfect choice.

“The fear of failure had gone,” recalls Mayank. “That really worked for me. I got into a great batting rhythm. So the preparation for this season is that. I know I am a very hungry cricketer who is not easily satisfied by the amount of runs. If I can get into a good batting rhythm, then I will make a lot of runs.”

Over the years, Mayank has upgraded to a more compact technique. What is more, he has worked on improving self-awareness and getting the patterns right, fine-tuning his blend of physical and mental powers. From practising Vipassana, an ancient Buddhist meditation technique, to running marathons, to facing 500 balls a day, he explored and pushed the boundaries of the athlete within.

The toil bore fruit. From his debut in December 2018 until the COVID-19 pandemic stalled international cricket, Mayank scored more runs than any India Test batter. As with life and cricket, there also came a period not so prolific, when runs didn’t come as easy, and opportunities tapered amid a competitive top-order tussle.

It is natural to wonder how a high-flying cricketer deals with disappointment, especially today, when discussions on mental health are slowly, but importantly, gaining space in the sport. Mayank, by his own admission, hasn’t been in such a space. Even for periods less gratifying, he takes them in his stride.

“To be honest, no, I look at it very differently,” he says. “The way I look at it is that this is something I love to do, something I want to do, and is my passion. Obviously disappointments are there, but I look at it as an aircraft journey – you are going to have turbulences, you are going to have some storms and you are going to have some very smooth periods. Some of those times teach you a lot of things. Some of the good times teach you: When things are going well, you just need to make hay.

“I look at it like that. I have never thought of anything else. Is it over? Those thoughts haven’t come to me yet.”

The firmness and clarity of Mayank’s thoughts are reflective of the leader within. Currently at the helm of Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy, he has also led in Twenty20 cricket, a format that gives breathing space to his naturally purposeful strokeplay. He has nearly 2,500 runs in the IPL: only seven India batters in the tournament’s history have scored more runs at a better strike rate.

In March, Mayank was offered the tall task of leading the Punjab Kings – a team that has never been in short supply of flair, but has missed the playoffs spot for the last eight seasons. “We want to create a strong foundation for the future with Mayank at the helm,” head coach Anil Kumble had said back then. Amid a changing landscape typical of franchise cricket, Kumble was replaced as coach in September, and in November, the team parted ways with Mayank.

It puts him back in the auction pool, but also opened up a multitude of possibilities. Always the kind who looks at the bright side, Mayank is happy to let nature run its course, while working on things he gets to actually control: “There is a possibility of working with a new setup and that’s exciting. But really, as a player, there is nothing much you can do but eagerly wait and watch. So that’s the thought. Just wait and watch what happens. The domestic season and Ranji Trophy is going on, so the focus is going to be there.”

You will always find Mayank revelling in a teammate’s success – chasing the bowler, laughing and celebrating alongside them, cheering vociferously when the chips are down, and lending suggestions. He is ready to take up the mantle of captaincy, if given a chance. But even if he is not, he will find ways to contribute to the team’s cause: “I am somebody who likes responsibility, but it’s obviously not my choice, always. Leadership, when given, I definitely take it up as a responsibility. But, me, generally as a player, whether the role is given or not, it’s always about contributing to the team and winning matches.

“Having captained an IPL franchise, you get to learn a lot more, you understand the game in more depth, and understand situations in a different perspective. It opens a new perspective, a new range. Use that experience and put it to good use.”

A players like that can hold considerable value to IPL teams always in need of a good Indian batting core. His success as a Twenty20 cricketer primarily stems from his value at the top of the order. With the field up in the first six, he maximises the range of his strokes, relying on, but not limited by, the conventionality of his game.

Barely months before unfurling his sumptuous cover drive on a third-day Ranji wicket, Mayank had been smothering white balls on the same pitch in coloured clothing. In the recent Karnataka state-run Maharaja T20 Trophy, Mayank admitted to opening up more areas in his gameplay. He finished as the highest run-getter, smashing two hundreds, the strike rate reading 167.

Yet, he does not want to be limited by one approach or one role. He is keen on aligning to the team’s overarching strategy. And while he knows opening in his greatest strength, he is flexible to explore a middle-order role too, if the team demands so: “For me, it depends on what the game plan is for the team. It also depends on what the role the team has given to you and the brand of cricket they want to play. A lot of it depends on the team strategy, rather than you sit back and say – this is how you’re going to play.

“It could mean 150 or 160, lost wickets, consolidating and taking the team through. For me, it’s about winning situations more than anything else. I have excelled up top. That’s really where I have done well, taking on the bowlers. Putting bowlers under pressure, using the powerplay to put the team in front. Once that is done, consolidate and get the team to a good score. That’s something I have really done well and am accustomed to. As a player, I am ready to bat anywhere, anywhere the team requires me to put in the performance and win the game.”

Less than a week from now, Mayank will be the first name to go under the hammer at the IPL auction. He will be playing in Bengaluru when the gavel will descend in Kochi. He believes he has done his bit. Unfazed by whatever is going on outside, he will be in one of his meditative zones, crouching at the crease and visualising his plans like he typically does, ready to tackle whatever comes next: “For me, it’s not about cutting the noise but focussing on the things at hand. If you can focus on the things you are doing, the outside noise is gone. You can’t hear it. The more you try to cut out the noise, the more it grows. If you just focus on the things at hand, you don’t hear any of it.”