Pandey breathes life into underwhelming season
After being dismissed for a valiant 177 in Karnataka's failed bid to overhaul Saurashtra's first-innings score in Rajkot, Manish Pandey was drained. His wicket ended the innings and play for the day as well. He barely acknowledged the appreciative words and pats on the back from his team-mates as he negotiated the narrow passage behind the sightscreen that leads to the makeshift dressing rooms of the Saurashtra University ground. Once he entered the dressing room, he found the seat in the farthest corner, plopped down and covered his face with his gloves. He sat in that pose for several minutes, and needed plenty more time to recover from his audacious effort to haul Karnataka past Saurashtra's 469 despite a middle-order failure. It's not a tiredness he has experienced often in what has been a lean season for him.
In first-class cricket, when Pandey is in form, he scores briskly with a series of easy-on-the-eye conventional strokes. Today was no different, as he made plenty of runs with fluid drives down the ground, and didn't have to resort to any of those flat-batted slogs that pepper his Twenty20 batting, though his 177 needed only 228 deliveries. And as he has shown several times, most famously in the 2009-10 Ranji final, he is unfazed by the occasion - an away knockout game, with his team having lost five wickets and more than 250 runs in the arrears - and didn't retreat into a defensive shell. The boundaries didn't stop from Pandey's bat all day.
"If you see, in the games that he hasn't got runs, he hasn't played freely and hasn't played his natural game," Stuart Binny, the Karnataka captain, said. "That's the only way a guy who hits the ball can score runs. Basically play smart cricket - play big shots and time the ball well. He plays his best cricket when he plays positively."
There was no doubting Pandey's relief at the end of a season-long wait for a hundred, but not with the 73-run advantage Saurashtra hold. "It feels great. It is a good match," he said after the day's play. "Probably if we would've got the lead at least… probably if another one had a partnership with me, someone pushing a little more, we might have gone through and this would have been a very happy hundred than a not-so-happy one because of the situation we are in."
Assessing the innings, he said: "I think I went pretty well. I took my chances where I had to take my chances and it happened. Getting 177 runs in one-day shows that I was playing positively and that's what I was looking forward to."
Pandey thought his team-mates motivated him in a unique manner to get a big score. "One great thing that happened was my team-mates didn't cheer for my half-century, they didn't let me know I had got a fifty [and the scoreboard at the ground doesn't display the batsmen's scores]. I was thinking about it [he has four half-centuries this season, but no hundreds], and it helped me a little."
The lack of hundreds shows just how far Pandey has fallen in the race for a national berth. It's nearly four years since he first hit the spotlight with an IPL hundred, and three since his chart-topping breakthrough first-class season. There were 600-plus runs in the next Ranji season as well, but a hernia operation hurt his chances last year, and his patchy form over the past few months means his name doesn't crop up when candidates for an India spot are discussed.
The typical progress for a promising batsman in the national team is to get a look in in a couple of Twenty20 games, success in which leads to the ODI side before more runs earns a Test spot. It hasn't helped Pandey's cause that he had a horror IPL in 2012, even losing his place in the Pune Warriors side, something almost unheard of in a competition where upcoming Indian batting talent is hugely sought after.
The national selector Rajinder Hans was on hand to watch Pandey take apart the Saurashtra bowling in Rajkot, but unless these sort of performances are produced on a more regular basis, Pandey will find it hard to jump the queue for a middle-order place.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo