Rajasthan's lone ranger
It has been a day of mixed fortunes for Pankaj Singh. At the very moment, perhaps, when the national selectors were discussing his name for the Australia tour, Pankaj was busy battling it out in Jhalawar, trying to secure for Rajasthan their first-ever victory over Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy. Pankaj couldn't save Rajasthan from losing by two runs - but he did get the selectors' call.
It was a reward for his performances over the past year and, if it surprised most people, Pankaj himself was confident that the national call was around the corner. "In a way I was expecting this call, especially after my five-wicket haul against a side like Mumbai in the first innings [at Jhalawar]," an excited Pankaj, 22, said.
His height - he stands 6' 5" in his socks - and broad shoulders have been his principal assets, along with his work ethic, in purchasing wickets on the flat, unresponsive Indian pitches for the past two years.
Venkatesh Prasad, the Indian bowling coach, felt the same during the bowlers' camp held in Mysore in June, before the England tour, where Pankaj was called at the last minute based on his performances during the previous Ranji season. "He's a tall and hardworking fast bowler with a good outswinger," was Prasad's assessment at the time.
Pankaj, who took the new ball during the India A tour to Kenya and then against South Africa A at home, runs in hard and delivers with a side-on action. His stock ball is the outswinger that leaves the right-hander at a decent pace, something his colleague Ishant Sharma can make use of; his secret delivery is the disguised incutter that he utilises intelligently. "The outswinger came naturally, but my experience during the A tours this year helped me bring more variety and the inswinger is a work in progress," Pankaj says.
His relative youth would raise expectations of greater pace but for now Pankaj is happy consistently hitting the 135kmph mark, so long as he can pitch it on the right spot. "If he can hit the back-of-the-length and short-of-good-length consistently, that's the priority," Prasad says. In essence he is asking Pankaj to do what he has been doing for Rajasthan for the last two seasons. Pankaj understands that well and is not fretting over the lack of pace. "A good line-and-length is what I want to focus on and as for pace I will definitely increase it with time."
KP Bhaskar, in his first season as Rajasthan's coach, believes Pankaj will have few problems bridging the gap between domestic and international cricket. "Line and length are his biggest strong points," says Bhaskar, adding that the reason Pankaj is not an all-out fast bowler is because he has to shoulder the burden of the Rajasthan attack almost single-handed.
Prasad says India has never been a nation of fast bowlers in any case and it would be beneficial if Pankaj can focus on the consistency. With Ishant bagging his maiden five-for, and Zaheer Khan and RP Singh returning to the fold, Pankaj will most likely be an understudy to the seniors. If at all he gets a chance, it will be during the two practice games ahead of the first Test on Boxing Day at the MCG.
Pankaj's performances appear to have impressed Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of selectors, who met him for the first time during the 2006-07 Deodhar Trophy. Since then, Pankaj says, Vengsarkar has encouraged him to believe in himself. "'Work on your basics and concentrate on your strengths', he told me," Pankaj said.
Pankaj's trip to Mysore earlier this year saw him acquire a more positive mindset. "We spoke a lot about mental toughness," Pankaj recalls about his conversations with Prasad and the other bowlers. The ideal tool, apart from height, broad shoulders and a strong work ethic, for that trip to Australia.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo