Mayank Agarwal's classy century against Delhi on Thursday may have made him the star on most days. But for the few hundreds that gathered at the KSCA ground in Alur, Manish Pandey was all the rage. The Karnataka batsman was the sole recipient of applause from a clamouring crowd as he walked out to bat. Later, when a few members of the team cooled down with a light football session at the end of day's play, Pandey was the centre of all attention again. It didn't seem to matter that a few other heroes, who have also played for India, were in closer vicinity, jogging around by the boundary.
This popularity of Pandey isn't newfound, but it has certainly surged since he's become a part of India's limited-overs squad. Coming from the same batch of India Under-19s as Virat Kohli, Pandey hasn't had the same opportunities or exposure at the senior level. He's had to bide his time despite consistent scores in domestic cricket. His rise hasn't been meteoric, but he's still a popular player.
Now, over two years since his international debut, Pandey is still fighting to nail a permanent spot. Constant changes to his batting position haven't made the process easy. An average of 43 and strike-rate of 95 suggests there's ability and potential, but it hasn't always been enough. There's been competition in the form of Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik and KL Rahul, his good friend and Karnataka team-mate. That is perhaps why every opportunity he gets at any level of competitive cricket is a blessing at this stage of his career.
Barely a few hours after turning up for India in a T20 international against New Zealand in Thiruvananthapuram, Pandey hopped onto a flight to Bangalore and drove to Alur, on the outskirts of the city, to join his Karnataka mates ahead of a crucial Ranji Trophy game. The batsmen who preceded him had set it up nicely. The sunshine had eased out whatever moisture there was on the surface, and Delhi's bowlers were tiring. Pandey walked in and stroked a half-century, the significance of which was magnified by the presence of MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors. After a punchy 74, Pandey acknowledged it was important to not let the bar drop.
"It's a completely different ball game [playing four-day cricket as compared to the limited-overs formats], you know," he said. "I had more time to settle down and play my shots as the innings progressed. It'll be important for me to continue batting like this and have fun.
"It was quite easy. The plan was to come at No. 4, but with the jet lag and stuff like that, I came in at No. 5. I have been playing a lot of ODI and T20, which obviously starts in the later part of the day. It was good to come back and play Ranji Trophy cricket for Karnataka. It was amazing to see the boys again. The partnership before definitely helped."
Pandey had a rousing start to his one-day career, with a half-century against Zimbabwe in Harare. Three games later, he blitzed a match-winning century against Australia in Sydney. A middling series against New Zealand cost him his place, and it took nearly a year for him to get a chance again, after a highly successful series with the India A team in South Africa.
Pandey announced his return with an unbeaten half-century in a crushing 168-run win over Sri Lanka. Since then, he has floated between Nos. 4 and 6, not remaining in the same position for more than three games in a row. It also hasn't helped that he returned with two single-digit scores in the three innings that he batted at No. 4. With India still in the hunt for a permanent fix to the No. 4 spot, those were costly lapses.
Pandey's game is well-suited to the position as he has the wherewithal to play the big shots as well as build an innings, like he showed in that Sydney hundred against Australia. However, being denied the luxury of settling into a position has made the bid harder.
"I didn't think about international cricket or the memories from before. I only thought about Karnataka cricket and my batting today," he said. "I was looking forward to play this game. It is a little difficult to adapt, but I think I have done this for a long time. It's a part of the game where the team wants you to play No. 4 or 5 or 6, and it'll be important for me to stay focussed and keep waiting for the call-up."
Pandey last played a first-class match in December last year, when Karnataka conceded the quarterfinal of the previous season's Ranji Trophy to Tamil Nadu inside two days. Given how heavily involved he has been in limited-overs cricket in that time, the pace at which Pandey struck his runs on Thursday perhaps wasn't entirely surprising. But he denied any conscious effort in tweaking his game.
"You don't look to score a boundary every ball, but I look to score a single every ball, be a little aggressive. Even if it's a defence, the intention is to be aggressive. Because of a lot of T20 cricket that is happening, cricket has changed in such a way that batsmen want to score runs and score boundaries. In a way, that's really good for cricket where it's looking good from the outside. I think we should just focus on getting runs."