Mayank Agarwal has good memories of the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune. It was here that he blasted a triple century in a Ranji Trophy match in 2017 after nearly being dropped for a pair in the previous match. Agarwal went on to score more than 1000 runs in that month alone - November - earning a new tag for himself. A tag he was not exactly used to in all his previous years: consistent.
Agarwal was back at the MCA stadium in Pune two years later, this time as an opener for India in the Test series against South Africa. And once again, he showed proof of that tag he earned, scoring his second Test ton in back-to-back matches. His 108 on the opening day of the second Test helped India gain firm control as they ended on 273 for 3, looking set for much more.
The knock follows a double-ton in the first innings of the Visakhapatnam Test. While that knock was nearly a cruise control, made easier by the company of Rohit Sharma, this one was all about grinding out tough phases.
The Pune pitch had some help for the pacers early on, as was evident by both teams bringing in third pacers into their XIs. South Africa lost the toss - always a disadvantage in India - but had an opportunity to get some early wickets. Agarwal was in the line of fire but came out triumphant.
Vernon Philander in particular tested Agarwal in the initial stages. With the ball nibbling around, Agarwal played and missed, played and edged, and was even struck on the pads for a massive LBW shout which went to the DRS. Agarwal survived all that, even as Rohit succumbed to an outside edge on the last ball of the 10th over from Kagiso Rabada.
The tests only got tougher even after Philander went. Anrich Nortje was given a Test debut ahead of Lungi Ngidi in place of Dane Piedt, and he seemed intent to make a mark steaming in at nearly 150 kmph every ball. With a fluid action, Nortje went for the short ball strategy, hitting Agarwal's bat fast and high.
The phase of the game even included Nortje hitting Agarwal on his helmet while the batsman tried to duck. It was raw pace on display, and the ball flew off the helmet to the boundary.
The usual protocol followed, with Agarwal undergoing concussion tests and a check-up of his helmet. He was deemed fit to carry on, and showed why the very next ball; Nortje bowled fuller, and Agarwal came forward to drive on the up through cover for four. That was Agarwal showing that he was in control.
Unlike in the previous Test when Rohit deflated South Africa and Agarwal nearly batted under his shadows, this time it was all about Agarwal taking control. Cheteshwar Pujara went about his business at the other end while Agarwal showed his strokeplay; he drove beautifully, and pulled with control when pacers went short. A pull shot off Nortje, with the bottom hand rolling over to keep the ball down and away from catchers stationed for that shot, was perhaps the shot of the day.
Agarwal scored 34 off 80 in the first session, giving the respect to the bowlers. In the next, he took more control, adding 52 off 91. He seemed set to open up after tea, stroking Keshav Maharaj for two consecutive sixes down the ground to get to 99. The century came in the next over when he steered Philander to third man for a boundary.
The change of gears meant danger for South Africa, and a calculated move from Agarwal. Batting wasn't going to be a cakewalk on this track, as was evident from the way Virat Kohli began; the captain scored only 9 off his first 44 balls. Agarwal had to ensure India don't get into a shell - they were also one batsman short - and took the gamble trusting his strokeplay.
But just when he seemed set for another big one, Rabada ended his stay, beating him for pace and getting him to nick to slip. Agarwal had done his work though, taking yet another step towards keeping that 'consistent' tag.