He's 19, a sensation, and knows how important it is to stay rooted
"Well played, Manish. But just make sure you keep your feet on the ground," VB Chandrasekhar, Chennai's director of cricket operations, says to the man who was instrumental in knocking Chennai out of the tournament.
It is the morning after the semi-final and we are standing in the corridor outside Manish Pandey's hotel room. He looks at his feet and smiles at VB. "Yes sir, I will definitely."
He tells me that it's advice he constantly gets. "Everybody I meet keeps telling me that. And I realise the importance. There have been so many people who have performed when young and go to a different level in terms of attitude that people don't like. That's true. I want to remain grounded."
It's not going to be easy. When you are a young, successful cricketer in India, it brings with it a whole different lifestyle and temptations. Many before Manish have faltered. "Money for nothing and chicks for free," I say, and he smiles.
"Dad always talks about it. 'When you play higher level, you get more money, but please never play for money.' I always have that in mind. I just want to keep bettering my performance and enjoying my cricket. Money toh aata rahta hai... sar pe kuch nahi chadha hai abhi [The money comes. Nothing has gone to my head so far]," he says laughing.
"It feels good when people talk about your talent. I realise only if and when I bat well, they will say good things."
Perhaps his background will help. His father's army job has taken him around the country, and opened him up to various cultures and lifestyles. He studied at the Kendriya Vidyalaya, an unglamorous institution, one that has students from all walks of life. I tell him how I studied at KV too.
"Arre, wah bhai! Super school, na? The fee used to be Rs 5, then it went to 45," he remembers.
"The army upbringing and the school background, I think, will help me stay grounded." Whether he will, only time will tell but his awareness of the need to do so is a positive sign.
"Whatever I earn, I give it to my mom and dad. If I want some money, I ask them," he says.
As the money pours in, so will new friends. The nightlife is going to get hectic. He laughs again. "It depends on my mood. Sometimes I like to party - and I enjoy it - sometimes I just like to stay in the room." Like most teenagers, he spends time on Orkut, Facebook, and hanging out with friends. Unlike some, there is no friction with his parents.
"I am very close to them. The first person I called after scoring the hundred was my mom, then my dad. Mom was very happy and said she was getting so many calls that she had to switch off the phone." If he continues in this fashion, she will have to get used to it.
The journey started when he was three. Manish has an old photograph in which he is batting with a plastic bat in his house. "From then, Dad wanted me to play cricket. Personally, when I was nine years, I knew I wanted to play cricket for life". Nine? When I was nine, all I wanted was to travel in an autorickshaw and not have to walk everywhere. I ask him again. Nine years? "Yes. I used to play in Syed Kirmani's academy in Bangalore, and hit a hundred against a team from Mysore in 40 balls. From then on, I decided to play cricket for ever."
His father's job kept taking him everywhere. Nasik, where his cricket flourished for four years in leagues, and to Rajasthan, where he played very little while he was in class 10. "We were in a small place, Suratgarh, for one-and-a-half years, where I didn't get to play much cricket." Luckily his father was transferred back to Bangalore, where cricket came back to the fore again. KSCA trials. Under-17. Three hundreds in a tournament. A smooth transition to Under-19. Now the IPL.
Has he had any difficult phases at all? "The first year in Under-17. Nothing was going right. I remember a stretch of 10 games where no runs came. I used to keep thinking how to get out of it. Luckily soon the 40s and 50s started coming and things progressed."
So much so that the boy became a bully and started to sledge the bowlers and the close-in fielders in his Under-19 days. "The non-striker used to come and say, 'Kitna sledge karega… batting kar!' [How much will you sledge? Do some batting]. To spinners I would say stuff like. 'Ah, aa raha hai hawa mein' [Ah, nice and flighted] and then I would go down and hit it. I would give a tough time to the short legs."
His confidence has grown after his stint in the IPL. Conversations with Sachin Tendulkar (when he was in the Mumbai team last year), Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble have helped. "It's not any particular bit of advice from them, but just the attitude and the commitment and how they play the game that has attracted me."
The road ahead is a long and tough one, but he seems determined to make it an enjoyable journey. "Yes, this IPL has gone well but I have to go back and do well in domestic cricket. I have to be consistent and put up the runs now. That will automatically create chances for me later." Muttiah Muralitharan, who bowled to him last evening, points to the likely speedbreakers. "Yes, he played really well but one has to wait. Twenty20 is a completely different form of cricket. It will come down to whether he has a good defence and a good head on his shoulders." Does he? As Murali says, we have to just wait and see.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo
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