Only 10 months after Yuvraj Singh smashed a rollicking 150 on his ODI comeback, India's No. 4 spot has gone vacant again. That day, when Yuvraj and MS Dhoni carted the England bowlers around the Barabati Stadium, Indian fans were wiping tears of nostalgia, probably thinking problems even as big as climate change and corruption had been solved, not just the No. 4 spot in the batting line-up.
Since then, Yuvraj's runs dried up, Dinesh Karthik could not score big in the West Indies, KL Rahul was unable to convert his chances in Sri Lanka and the problem of No. 4, that now looks as old as Yuvraj, has returned.
That India have used as many as 11 batsmen at No. 4, more than any other team, since the 2015 World Cup suggests how desperately the selectors are looking through the reserves in search of a solid batsman. While doing that, the spotlight has shifted on Manish Pandey, who has shown immense promise in the domestic circuit, IPL matches and the international matches he has featured in so far.
Until recently, he was remembered as the first Indian to score a century in the IPL, in May 2009, when he was only 19. However, there exists a gulf between scoring an IPL century and making your India debut. To bridge it, Pandey toiled in the domestic seasons, making his name as an aggressive batsman for Karnataka and a match-winner for Kolkata Knight Riders, especially when his 50-ball 94 eclipsed Wriddhiman Saha's century in the 2014 IPL final.
Pandey has also played three innings at No. 4 for India this year - scoring 36*, 0 and 3 - but he deserves a longer rope for the kind of excitement he has shown. It was only last year in Sydney that he smashed an unbeaten 104 in a tough chase of 331, after Virat Kohli had fallen for 8. It was Pandey's maiden ODI hundred and gave India a batsman who could effectively connect the top order with the finishers.
He has shown he can keep his head in pressure situations. Take a look at his numbers batting second for proof: 300 runs at an average of 60 and a strike-rate over 100. Moreover, he has been there when the winning runs were scored five out of 10 times.
Only last month, even as Kohli aced another chase, against Sri Lanka, Pandey saw the team home with an unbeaten half-century. Less than three weeks later, while chasing 294 against Australia in Indore, he struck a quick, unbeaten 36 to seal the win after Hardik Pandya had made 78. As much as these cameos have helped, he will be able to make his case better with a bigger score, and also perhaps a better record in the first innings - currently it is 130 runs at an average of 26.
Most of all, Pandey needs to show the vision of a No. 4. He may have to set up a chase with maturity; lay the platform, like he did in Sydney, instead of cashing in on one set by another player. He may have to rescue India from a score like 10 for 2, and carry the baton for 20-30 overs before handing it over to the likes of Dhoni and Pandya. He needs to set examples in the first innings too, to prove that he can dominate from the beginning, set the tone even if a more senior batsman is at the other end.
Maybe that's asking for a lot from a new No. 4 but he has enough domestic experience to his name and - luckily for him - the competition for the spot is not as fierce as it has been among the openers. He also does not have to do all of the above at once. To begin with, he needs to accumulate a few more runs; even a couple of measured half-centuries could firm up his place in the XI.
Pandey has the benefit of age. The other contender for the No. 4 spot - Karthik, who has been picked again - is 32, and Rahul, who played in the middle order in Sri Lanka, has been dropped. What Pandey needs to be aware of is that Karthik scores so many runs in domestic cricket that he makes a case for selection every other year. So it is all the more important the he uses the three ODIs against New Zealand, and three more against Sri Lanka, if he is picked, to prove himself and claim the spot lying vacant for years now.