Ishwar Pandey makes his own luck
Sometimes seemingly casual decisions turn out to be the biggest in life. Ask Ishwar Pandey, the Madhya Pradesh fast bowler, who had nothing to do with a leather ball till his standard 12 exams, but then he walked into a selection trial. A few months later, he found himself bowling for the MP Under-19 team. Five years later, he is the highest wicket-taker this Ranji Tropy season, has played for India A, bowled at an India nets session, and has been signed by Pune Warriors in the IPL.
At that time, Pandey did not even know which team the trial was for. It was summer vacation from school in his hometown of Rewa, in eastern MP, and he had plenty of time to spare. "It was just one of those things," Pandey says. "I and a few friends decided to check out what the trial was about. Once there, aise hi jaake daal diya (I just had a casual bowl) on a matting wicket."
The trial was for the Rewa side, which plays in MP's competitive divisional cricket. Days after MP's Ranji season was over this year, Devendra Bundela, the state captain, turned out for Ujjain division. Pandey's deliveries must have been anything but casual, for he was soon told to report at a local club. He refused, saying his father would not allow it.
Pandey's father, a retired Subedar Major in the army, wanted his two sons to focus on their studies. Being the elder one, Pandey had little leeway, if any, against a strict disciplinarian father. It took the university coach, Mr Anthony, to convince the former soldier to let his son take up leather-ball cricket.
Pandey made his debut for MP U-19 in November 2007, but was dropped the following season after failing to take enough wickets. However, he had already impressed the U-19 coach, Mukesh Sahni, who now coaches the MP senior side. "Even then, he had the standout deliveries," Sahni says. "They were so good that at the U-19 level, batsmen weren't able to play them, and would get beaten. Probably that is why he did not have many wickets then."
Being left out also brought renewed pressure from his father to give up playing and concentrate on studying. Pandey had tasted blood by now, though. He switched streams from science to arts so that he could devote more time to cricket. The following year, he forced his way into the MP U-22 side with good performances at divisional level.
Amay Khurasiya, the former India and MP batsman, saw enough potential in Pandey to help him go to the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai. Regular stints there have helped increase his pace and improve his fitness, he says.
Standing 6'2" tall, Pandey bowls in the mid-130s, his height affording him bounce, even from a good length. He credits his father for both - his broad shoulders and his athleticism. The former is genetic, the latter a result of his father pushing him to run regularly from childhood. "Papa se main bahut kamzor hoon, magar height same hai (I am much weaker than my father, but as tall as him)," he says.
All these attributes are why MP haven't missed their erstwhile lead bowler and previous Ranji season's highest wicket-taker, the banned TP Sudhindra. In only his third season of first-class cricket, the 23-year old Pandey has delivered on the role Sahni had in mind for him since mid-2012, before MP embarked on their pre-season tour of Sri Lanka. "Height. Speed. Strength. He has everything," Sahni says. "Last season, Sudhindra had 40 wickets, Pandey had 25 as well. But he was not accurate enough. We have worked on his accuracy. Now he can move the ball both ways from the same spot around the off stump. We have also given him a more attacking role, as opposed to a slightly defensive one earlier. "
Pandey also fancies himself as a batsman. At least he used to during his tennis-ball days but realised soon that "there is a lot of difference between leather and tennis balls". He still loves batting. He almost took MP to victory in the thriller against Mumbai with some big sixes. Fast-bowling is where he's made a mark, though. Sahni is convinced he should play at the highest level. Narendra Hirwani, the former India and MP legspinner and former national selector, agrees.
"When I saw him two years ago, he looked an India prospect but now I say he is ready to play for the country," Hirwani told the Times of India. "He is fitter, stronger and most importantly hungrier. He has it in him to have a long international career."
Seeing him move up the ranks, Pandey's father, who is not a keen follower of the game, has also long given up his opposition to his son playing cricket. "'Now that you have chosen this path, continue on it,' he told me," Pandey says. His younger sibling, though, is yet to warm up. "He's not interested at all that his brother is playing," Pandey says with the smile of an accommodating elder brother. Perhaps it will take an India call-up to get his attention.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo