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IPL: Mayank Agarwal's brave new Punjab Kings

The Punjab Kings captain Mayank Agarwal speaks to Lounge about strategy, backing his players and a new IPL tactical plan

Liam Livingstone of Punjab Kings celebrates with captain Mayank Agarwal after the wicket of Dwayne Bravo of Chennai Super Kings.
Liam Livingstone of Punjab Kings celebrates with captain Mayank Agarwal after the wicket of Dwayne Bravo of Chennai Super Kings. (PTI)

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Before the Indian Premier League (IPL) season began, Punjab Kings (PBKS) decided to revamp their squad after languishing in the bottom half of the table for seven seasons in a row. So they retained only two of their players, instead of the four allowed, ahead of the mega-auction, India opener Mayank Agarwal and the uncapped pacer Arshdeep Singh. This allowed them to spend 72 crore at the auction, using the money to activate a new plan.

Head coach Anil Kumble and franchise owners Ness Wadia, Mohit Burman, Preity Zinta, and Karan Paul had apparently agreed on a high-risk-high-reward strategy after the frustrations of previous seasons. This was evident from PBKS shelling out 11.5 crore for England’s Liam Livingstone, a hard-hitter yet to fulfill his potential in the IPL. The team also spent 6 crore for Caribbean sensation Odean Smith, who tonked some breathtaking sixes in a series against India and bowled with fire. Another big outlay was that of 9 crore for the uncapped Indian finisher Shahrukh Khan. The new PBKS plan seems to be that with a licence to attack, the team would get more wins than losses.

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The man in charge of executing this strategy on the ground is their new skipper, Mayank Agarwal, one of the players PBKS had retained. The stakes are high in the IPL with 10 franchises splurging 551 crore on 204 players in this year’s mega-auction. Its massive viewership and international standard of competition between well-matched sides can make or break players. On top of that, when you commit to an aggressive strategy as a team leader, the pressure mounts.

As captain and one of the opening batsmen, Agarwal has been at the sharp end of the new PBKS strategy. You want to get runs to gain the respect of world class players you lead. At the same time, you have to set an example by going hard at the bowling from the outset. Back-to-back failures with the bat in his first four games tested his resolve to the hilt. A lesser player might have wilted, but Agarwal has an outstanding IPL record to shore up his confidence: an average of 40 with a strike rate of 140 in the last season and a similar average with an even higher strike rate of 156 in 2020. Finally, in the fifth game, he cracked two boundaries in the first three balls, showing no change in intent, and ended up with his first fifty of the season—52 in 32 balls, with a strike rate of over 150.

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This is a test of temperament as much as skill and strategy. “It comes down to the emotional intelligence of the whole group,” says Agarwal while speaking to Lounge. “Negative thoughts are going to come to you, but if we’ve committed to a certain way of playing, we can be smart and manoeuvre around it.”

It’s one thing to adopt an aggressive strategy, but another matter to execute it with a reasonable probability of success. That means knowing when to bide your time, even as you take risks without fear of failure. This requires total buy-in from the players, captain, and coaching staff. “We want to be smart about the options we’re taking, the bowlers we’re targeting. Like any other strategy, it’s not that it works from the word go. You make mistakes, learn from them, and get better,” explains Agarwal. “Only time will tell if this works out or not. But we believe in it. And if we keep getting better incrementally every game, we will be in good shape.”

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For PBKS, the moment of reckoning came during the last three balls of their fourth game against Gujarat Titans, with the Titans needing 13 runs to win. David Miller smashed a ball straight back at Odean Smith, who stopped it. PBKS could not have lost from there, barring a no-ball or wide in the last two balls. But Smith attempted a runout at the non-striker’s end and conceded a single. That gave the strike to the dangerous Rahul Tewatia, who hit two sixes in the last two balls to win the game. A loss like that is hard to swallow when a win would have taken PBKS to the top of the table. “It’s all right; it’s a game of cricket… We totally back Odean,” said Agarwal in the post-match interview.

Agarwal then showed that he meant what he said when Odean Smith again bowled the last over in the next game against Mumbai Indians. It didn’t begin well, as Smith’s first ball was hit for a six. Then the IPL newbie took three wickets and gave only three runs away in the next five balls to close out the game.

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“I give him a lot of credit for the way he came back after what he went through. During the game against Mumbai Indians, he came up to me and said, ‘Skips, if you want me to bowl four overs, I’m ready for it.’ This shows his character and the confidence he has in his own ability,” says Agarwal. “In games like these, managing emotions becomes the key. What happened with Odean in the Gujarat Titans game could have happened with anybody else. We’re backing our players and the brand of cricket we have chosen to play.”

It’s not the first time that a team has taken a calculated risk to shift to a new style of play. England did it after the debacle of an early exit from the 2015 ODI World Cup, which ultimately led to winning the 2019 World Cup. It’s too early to put PBKS in that bracket, but Agarwal and Kumble have made a start in understanding how to make a bold new strategy work.

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It begins with picking the kind of players who they think can execute that strategy and then being phlegmatic enough to give them enough time to come good. In Odean Smith’s case, for example, Agarwal is clear in his mind about what he brings to the table, so that he’s not constantly buffeted by ups and downs. “The skillsets he has are unique and it’s nice to have a fast-bowling all-rounder. So it depends on the strategy you want to go with as a team. And then it’s also a gut feeling from seeing how hard he is working at the nets on his execution… One important aspect of captaincy is knowing when to trust a player or not, and for me, I would like to always give the benefit of the doubt to the player. I’m still new to captaincy and it’s a good learning experience for me as well.”

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Agarwal can empathise with his players, having gone through more than his fair share of highs and lows. He scored 76 and 42 on his Test debut in Melbourne in December 2018, and set up a historic series win in Australia. But just before the 2021 England series, he lost his spot in the Test team following a freak concussion at the nets. Now the emotional rollercoaster of the IPL captaincy has the potential to take Agarwal to a higher mental level in the game. “Understanding different people and situations, and then using that to improve myself is something I’m enjoying. Everyone in the team is not going to perform all the time. You have to accept that about them and also about yourself,” he says.

The IPL has a number of first-time captains this season, apart from Agarwal. Hardik Pandya at Gujarat Titans, Ravindra Jadeja at Chennai Super Kings, Faf du Plessis at Royal Challengers Bangalore all face great challenges in coming to terms with the pressures the tournament brings. At the same time, if they learn to cope with those pressures, it opens a new world of opportunity.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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