Mandeep in the fast lane
When Paul Valthaty, last season's surprise IPL success, struggled to replicate his form this year, Kings XI Punjab turned to 20-year-old Mandeep Singh to shore up their top order. It was just the opportunity Mandeep had been waiting for. Despite his youth, Mandeep was a prolific scorer in domestic cricket - he has made 1,074 runs at an average of 63.17 over two seasons and knew his profile would rise if he could make an impact in the IPL. It would potentially catapult him into the conversation for places in the India squad.
"[My] Ranji performance has been good the last two years but if you do well in the IPL, hopefully you will get noticed," Mandeep told ESPNcricinfo. "I want to play for India as soon as I can and for as long as I can."
Mandeep started steadily with a number of 20s and 30s in the IPL but has found another gear recently, making 56, 43 and 75 in three of his last five innings, with Kings XI winning each of those games. He has also quietly worked his way up the IPL's list of top scorers and is currently in 10th place, ahead of his more illustrious Australian team-mates, David Hussey and Shaun Marsh.
His performances have already made an impression. Following his 48-ball 75 against Deccan Chargers last Tuesday, Hussey, who has been standing in as captain in the absence of the injured Adam Gilchrist, called Mandeep "a very special player" and someone who could do well for India in all three forms of the game. Mandeep's great strength, Hussey said, is his ability to hit good balls to the boundary with ease.
Mandeep puts his success down to his ability to play fast bowling well. "However fast someone bowls, it doesn't make much difference to me," he said. "I got the chance to open because the team knows I play fast bowling well. Still, the main thing is that I play freely and don't worry about any tension that I need to play fast or do certain things. However well I can use the first six overs, I should use them."
This ability to play fast bowling is not something Mandeep takes for granted. It has been honed through many hours of practice. He sets the bowling machine to speeds of 85 to 90 mph and practices with a tennis ball to learn how to combat swing. He has also been taking throwdowns from Gilchrist using a rubber ball. "Gilly throws them hard from 15 to 16 yards and that is very effective," Mandeep said.
One of the benefits of the IPL for young domestic players from India is the exposure to international players and Mandeep is no exception. Hussey and Gilchrist have been teaching him how to approach his batting while Azhar Mahmood has been another valuable resource. "This is a big deal for young players that you can sit with these guys and learn from them," Mandeep said.
Having to take guard against some of the best opening bowlers in the world, like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, has been another cherished learning experience. "You get an idea about what is needed at the highest level," Mandeep said. "You are not blank. The Ranji Trophy is a high level but if you play IPL, you get to play the best bowlers from around the world and you get an idea of what it takes to play international cricket."
This season, Mandeep is enjoying his chance to shine, but there was a time when his cricketing future hung in the balance. A diehard fan of Sachin Tendulkar since he was a young boy, Mandeep used to watch Tendulkar and try and imitate the way he played. At the age of 11, he joined the Jalandhar Cricket Academy to chase his dream of playing cricket professionally, but his father, an athletics coach, did not greet his son's decision with much enthusiasm. He felt his son had made a risky choice and would rather he become a doctor instead, like his elder brother. But Mandeep had the talent and the dedication and was quickly amongst the runs, setting his father's mind at rest. "Once I started to do well, he supported me a lot."
Mandeep eventually found himself touring Australia as part of the Under-19 team in 2009 and marked himself as one for the future when he cracked a match-winning 151 in the second one-dayer at the Bellerive Oval . He was then named the vice-captain for the U-19 World Cup held in New Zealand in 2010 and made his first-class debut for Punjab in November later that year, making an unbeaten 53 batting at No. 7, the top score of the innings. Along with Abhimanyu Mithun and fellow U-19 team-mate Harpreet Singh, Mandeep was awarded the Border-Gavaskar scholarship for 2010 and spent two-weeks training at Cricket Australia's Centre of Excellence in Brisbane.
While his performances for Kings XI this year have not come with the same pyrotechnics as a Chris Gayle or Virender Sehwag, Mandeep has been crucial in keeping his team in the playoff picture. If he continues to perform in the same vein, his dream of playing India may not be all that far off.
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo