Pankaj singed by tough debut
Pankaj Singh's wicket column was empty. Two days at the new job. No returns. Many times he stood in the field, hands on hips with a helpless expression. He would walk back to his bowling mark shaking his head when luck did not smile on him. You could understand his frustration.
It was a tough initiation for the man who had cried his heart out at the turn of the New Year, asking the selectors to give him one chance at playing Test cricket. On Sunday the dream became reality when Pankaj was handed his Test cap by former India captain Sourav Ganguly.
On Monday, Pankaj sprinted in from backward short leg full of energy and renewed hopes. He settled in quickly, with his fourth delivery whistling past the outside edge off Ian Bell's hanging bat. The next ball, Bell once again was lured into playing and missing as once again the ball seamed away, missed the edge and MS Dhoni caught the ball at waist height.
Bell should not even have been there, if you asked Pankaj. In the first over after the second new ball was taken late on Sunday afternoon, Pankaj, bowling from Northern End, had managed to bend a delivery which seemed to be going down leg but swerved into Bell's pads at the very last moment. Not only did it catch Bell by surprise but even the umpire, Rod Tucker, was caught off guard. Pankaj shrieked out a prolonged appeal, nearly squatting, but Tucker remained unimpressed.
While picking up his hat Pankaj checked with Tucker, who might have noted the ball would have gone down the leg side at first sight. According to Hawk-Eye, the ball would have gone on to hit the top of the middle stump. Pankaj had bowled with decent control and intensity on his first day of work, proving he was a capable replacement for the injured Ishant Sharma. He would have had the wicket of Alastair Cook, too, had Ravindra Jadeja not dropped the chance.
First ball of Pankaj's second over today, Bell was forced to play at an outswinger, but the resultant edge zipped past the empty fourth slip pocket. Pankaj grimaced. It was a similar expression he had displayed at the end of the hard day's work at stumps on Sunday. After he had delivered the final ball of the day, Pankaj bent over with his hands on his knees out in the middle of his pitch with an exhausted and helpless look.
You could not help but feel for Pankaj. He had strived hard to reach the international stage. His journey started in a village in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh before he moved down south where he worked part-time at a sweet shop in Bangalore while pursuing dreams of playing top-level cricket. He moved to the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai before heading to play domestic cricket for the west state of Rajasthan, where he has grown into their best bowler, leader and mentor to youngsters.
Pankaj was the central architect of Rajasthan winning the Ranji Trophy title in successive years in 2011 and 2012 seasons. He has been the most consistent, high-performing fast bowler in the last five years in Indian first-class cricket.
Yet Pankaj continued to be ignored by the selectors, who did not even deem him fit to play on India A tours. No selector ever told him what they expected of him or what they needed him to work on. Each time a team was announced, Pankaj would just swallow the pain and get on with the job. With such a compelling back-story, Pankaj, at 29 years old, was bound to be emotional on his debut.
It is also easy to understand his eagerness to make an impact. It is like being in the first week of job. It is natural you want to impress - more yourself than others. You want to feel that you have earned your job.
Credit to him, on the first day Pankaj did not show nerves. He bowled tidily and mostly followed his captain MS Dhoni's instructions. After every over Dhoni would share insights and tips with the debutant. It was important to tell the bowler he had his captain's confidence. Giving Pankaj the second new ball was a cue.
Yet Pankaj was a lost soul on Monday, especially after lunch. It did not help his cause that Dhoni never allowed his bowlers to settle into a rhythm, as Pankaj bowled six one-over spells in the second session. Pankaj, broad-shouldered, 6ft 4in tall, uses a lot of his body in his action. He relies on rhythm to plot his wickets. So Dhoni's out-of-the-box method did not especially aid Pankaj.
However, it was not Dhoni's fault that Pankaj strayed in his lines and lengths. Too many times today he lost control by either spraying it short and wide or down the leg side, offering easy shots for Bell and Gary Balance in the morning and later Bell and Jos Butler in the afternoon.
For Rajasthan, a decent percentage of Pankaj's 258 first-class wickets was of batsmen who can easily get distracted. International batsmen are a different breed. Pankaj would have learned that lesson by now. His duel with Bell was a fascinating example. Bell had played and missed frequently but any room he got from Pankaj he punished the bowler: like the solid, back-foot square drive in the morning, standing high on his toes, that raced to the boundary and pushed Pankaj back into his corner.
Pankaj was desperate. But he needs to understand being successful is not only about taking wickets. It is also about working for your bowling partners. Whenever he was thrown the ball, he needed to be disciplined, especially on a placid and slow pitch, to not lose the momentum which would only put pressure on the rest of the bowling. It was important to stick to the off-stump line and bowl the channels - a simple, monotonous chore, yet one that has proved effective for every successful fast bowler. What stands in Pankaj's favour is he has employed that same method on unresponsive, flat pitches in India for the last decade.
It is easy to get frustrated. It is easy to feel you are on your own when you finish as the second most-expensive bowler without a wicket in your first outing. But Pankaj is not alone there. Michael Holding recollected his debut Test in Brisbane in 1975 tour of Australia where he finished wicketless.
That is the truth in Test cricket: it can be a lonely place when things are not going your way. As a debutant you want to feel belonged on your first days at work. But you need to clock a lot of mileage before you get to that spot.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo