Can Pandey make it this time?

It all started with the tag, ‘The first Indian to score an IPL century,’ and since then much has been said and written about Manish Pandey. ‘Mani’ or ‘Pandu’ as he is called in the cricketing circles can aptly be called a sphinx. While one cannot help but notice the audacity, the unorthodox batting style plus the athleticism that he brings on to the field, Pandey has also been known to be consistent in patches and a batsmen highly unpredictable- a trait that has contributed to his downfall along with his success. Today I want to write about the gifted talent who was my senior at the cricket club where I trained. He is one of those heroes who adorns the walls of the Karnataka Institute of Cricket (KIOC) along with Robin Uthappa, Mayank Agarwal and Karuna Jain.

KIOC was celebrating when Pandey was selected to represent India in the ICC U-19 World Cup 2008 at Kuala Lumpur. When critics said that he flopped miserably in the tournament. I felt that they were a tad unfair and a bit too harsh on the youngster as he usually came to bat at the fag end of the innings, and his highest score of 24 against Papua New Guinea in the six games he played was not the reason to strike him off the gifted list.

But all it took was one innings to make history and Pandey did just that.His first IPL game for the Royal Challengers Bangalore and he blitzed his way to an  unbeaten 114 of 73 deliveries against the now defunct Deccan Chargers in 2009 at the Wanderers. And it was the perfect platform to get noticed. Mind you, it wasn’t a flawless innings. He looked out of sorts with edges and he was all, but at sea when Manpreet Gony charged in as he nervously shuffled around the crease. He survived when RP Singh dropped a sitter and it proved too costly as the boy went on to become the first IPL centurion. I vividly remember Harsha Bhogle and Danny Morrison commentating animatedly about the edges and the mistimed sweeps that Pandey had played to bring up maiden his half-century with twin shots off Pragyan Ojha. The trademark half slog-half sweep was on full display that day.

While he was a bit off balance while going down on one knee to hoick the first six, the second one was latched on to in a flash and this time he got hold of the shot better  when Ojha bowled an identical delivery. It was his maiden half-century and he kept his celebrations simple; just a fist pump with Ross Taylor. All this and RCB were still going at a modest seven runs an over.

However, this didn’t deter the 20-year old as he just flashed away. One slap off the back foot towards long-on was more like a a gardener chopping  grass with a sickle. Crude, but fetched him four valuable runs. Sixteenth over and Pandey was looking ominous. Gilchrist couldn’t help but have a sheepish smile on his face as he watched a young batsmen club the Chargers all over the park with disdain. Just when it looked like he was tiring, and a shot that seemed to suggest the same- as he skied it high enough, the expression on Herschelle Gibbs’s face was of pure joy. But Pandey had the luck of the devil as  the ball fell five yards behind Gibbs and all he could do was just roll it back to play.

By this time Pandey had moved on to the nineties and the over read 2,4,6, the same skied six. A double to end the over and when he got back on strike, the hundred came up when he nudged the ball towards covers for an easy couple. And there was no Viratesque celebrations. Just a calm wave of the bat and a relaxed feeling that was evident.Post that innings, I still remember what he said, “It’s a lovely feeling altogether…getting a chance after so long…looked to make the most of it…a hundred odd not out…It feels good,” all this while gasping for breath.

No, he definitely wasn’t a one-match wonder as he followed it up with a better and a crisp, stroke-filled 48 off 35 balls in the semifinal against the Chennai Super Kings. His partnership with Dravid ensured that RCB would again face Deccan Chargers in the final where he was dismissed for a dismal eight of just three deliveries. But the mark had been made. Pandey was the new poster boy for the Challengers.

Come the Ranji 2009-10 season, Pandey seemed more comfortable playing the longer format too as he amassed 884 runs in nine games. One cannot forget the cliffhanger in Mysore when Pandey almost pulled it off for Karnataka. His defense wasn’t exactly watertight, but he made it up by those unorthodox shots that you see in tennis ball cricket. Somehow that day, Pandey didn’t seem to care if the four that came off his bat was a cover drive or a cut. All that mattered was taking the team home. Even after scoring the century, there was this eerie calmness on his face and well, the same wasn’t on Wasim Jaffer’s though.

Even as wickets around him tumbled, he kept attacking Mumbai relentlessly. The partnership with Ganesh Satish proved crucial, but somehow the win was not to be as Karnataka lost by a heart-wrenching six runs. His 144 studded with  18 fours and one towering six off Ajit Agarkar and the stunning catch titled ‘Catch of the Century’ on YouTube are just glimpses of brilliance that defined young Pandey.

2010 and the IPL was back again and  the Royal Challengers looked formidable than the rest of the teams. For Pandey though, this was a start of the next three forgettable IPLs. He barely lasted more than five overs even as the Kallis-Pandey duo made headlines for their opening partnerships that helped RCB have a solid foundation for the other batsmen  to press the pedal hard and up the ante at the later part of the innings.

Somehow, it wasn’t just Kumble who seemed to have a perplexed expression on his face each time Pandey came back after giving away his wicket, taking a quick walk with his head bowed down. He seemed to do well in the nets. The timing and the strokeplay was seen, so was the dedication on the field. But then Ray Jennings pointed out that he was playing a lot of cross-batted shots in the games that resulted in him getting out. While Dravid too expressed concern about him being actively involved at IPL Nights. Pandey could be seen at wee hours in the morning  at the glitzy parties and maybe, just maybe the influence slowly crept in.

Things went on till Kumble decided to drop him when RCB played against Deccan Chargers for third place. Good enough to take them into the CLT20 in September. And luckily for Pandey, he was still in the 15-member squad that traveled to South Africa for the tournament.

Game one: Royal Challengers Bangalore vs the South Australian Redbacks. A bicep-pumped Pandey took guard against Shaun Tait who hurtled a straight delivery that was just nudged for a four straight down the ground. All that Pandey did was plonk the bat straight and the ball raced away to the fence. Next ball was no different, Pandey reacted a split-second late and the result: Mid stump uprooted. So much for the star batsmen who had given an interview just the previous day telling that he would love to open the innings and make a mark in CLT20.

Game two: Pandey was dropped in the game against Wayamba Elevens. He was seen sitting in the dugout with a morose expression in his face.

Game three: Pandey was dropped again when they faced Mumbai Indians. Virat Kohli’s heroics couldn’t steer the team home though as they lost by two runs.

Game four: Pandey back in the squad against Highveld Lions in a must win game to keep their semis hopes alive. Kallis was down with a stomach bug and Pandey was the only choice. Chasing 164, he came out to bat with Rahul Dravid. Dressed in full sleeves which he had never done and wearing the same red and white gloves he wore when he made his debut, it was homecoming for Pandey at the Wanderers as he stroked his way to a sublime 44 that laid foundation for another Kohli special at the end of the day’s play.

Game five: Semifinal clash against CSK. A rain-hit game that reduced the match to 17-overs a side and thanks to Murali Vijay’s brilliance, RCB were chasing a daunting 175 to win. RCB faltered spectacularly and folded to a meek 123/9. Pandey though was the lone beacon of light as he lit up Durban with a 44-ball 52. It was a counterattack which did not help as he ran out of partners at the other end.

By then, Pandey  seemed to embrace a different lifestyle. If he was at the nets in the morning, followed by pounding weights dutifully in the gym, he was also seen as an active at Bangalore’s party circuits driving around his two-seater Mercedes. That though didn’t affect his game as much as he made merry in the domestic season. Things though went awry with the contract deal involving the Royal Challengers and the Pune Warriors during the IPL and he was banned for four games before he finally took guard against Chennai.

Dressed in black and carrying a new Nike bat that looked a lot like the Grey Nicolls Evo. He strode out at No.3  and announced himself with a boundary off his first ball by Albie Morkel. Banged short and Pandey smoked it for a four towards long on. But his attacking game play didn’t last long after he was bowled for a mere 12 runs. The rest of the season was saw Pandey slump down to his worst ever average. The dry run continued as he averaged just 22.36.

But he did begin his Ranji season on a strong note. Pandey scored his second first-class double-century in Karnataka’s third-round match against Mumbai at the Brabourne Stadium but felt pain during the innings, as well as while fielding later in the drawn match. He consulted doctors on his return to Bangalore, was advised an immediate hernia surgery and was sidelined for six weeks. Pandey wasn’t his fittest best when he returned. He scored 163 runs of nine games for the Pune Warriors and his highest score was a scratchy 66 against Kolkata.

Somehow, there was a silver lining when he was lapped up by the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014. When he took guard against Mumbai coming in to bat at No.3, he stroked his way to a fluent 64. And somehow there was a change in the way he looked. He had beefed up a little, his attacking instinct was back and he looked more focused. A string of consistent performances caught the eye and he topped it off with a 50-ball 94 in the final at the M Chinnaswamy. RCB had a forgettable season and the home crowd poured in to see the Karnataka trio of Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey and Vinay Kumar- who represented Kolkata that season. Uthappa who had hit a purple patch right from the middle of the season faltered in the big final, but then Pandey rose to the occasion.

It may have not been a century, but it definitely overshadowed Wriddhiman Saha’s brilliance who had scored his maiden century in that game. The daunting total seemed to diminish in size as Pandey fired all cylinders that day. Just when it looked like Kolkata were crossing the finish line, he miscued one straight to Bailey who had already dropped Pandey once, but this time pouched it cleanly. Piyush Chawla’s cameo saw the Knights home and Pandey was the hero of the final.

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His Ranji run in 2014-15 too was fairly decent  as he stacked up 570 runs in 11 games with an average of 35.62 as Karnataka were crowned champions. Pandey, again showcased his class as he scored an unbeaten century in the second innings to give Karnataka a massive 246 run win against ROI in the Irani Trophy that year. That innings was an example that he could shift gears at will. The last session of the third day, Pandey  was seen prodding about and managed to hot six runs in those 25 balls he played before close of play. The following day, as he realised that he was  running out of partners at the other end, he took an errant Varun Aaron and smashed him for 26 runs in six balls to bring up his century.

The team India call-up did finally materialise, but unfortunately, the Windies cancelling the series midway meant Pandey had to cool his heels again, and when the debut did come, he scored a match-winning 71 against Zimbabwe. This, followed by an unbeaten century in the fifth ODI against Australia. While the wickets tumbled, Pandey kept the scoreboard ticking and the century meant, he would not be sidelined.

Pandey is a big-match player. The recent quadrangular series against Australia A is a perfect example where he shouldered the responsibility of leading the side and produce match-winning knocks. Another example was when he led his side Mysore Warriors in the KPL to win the tournament.

And now, hopefully after all that I have explained about Pandey, its also a wish to see Pandey be a regular feature for the Men In Blue. Come this New Zealand series, Pandey would look to be a part of the side. Of course, he would fancy his chances thanks to the recent performances down under, and look to cash in on the opportunity to become India’s next finisher, but again hopefully, just hopefully, there won’t be any ‘pandeymonium’ like the earlier season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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