The IPL gurus would be very happy with Friday's late match. They have always pitched the tournament as an opportunity for young Indian talent to make their mark - and, at the same time, reaped the benefits of seniors trying to come back to international cricket. Tonight they had Manish Pandey and Herschelle Gibbs as cases in point and on both counts they were right.
If Pandey goes on to bigger things, he will look back at this knock as where it all turned around for him, the innings where he began to express himself at the international level. Self-expression has never been Gibbs' problem; self-destruction has. Through this season's IPL, he has shown that he retains the hunger to play cricket at a high level.
This is certainly the biggest night in Pandey's career. Often, an innings like this kickstarts a career. Pandey was behind the likes of Virat Kohli in the list of players who emerged from the India team that won the Under-19 world cup last year. Kohli had the swagger, the extra confidence that separated him from his teammates. He got the India cap first and acquitted himself creditably against the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis. Pandey remained in his shadow so far. Till today. So far, he hadn't done much in IPL or for that matter in the last domestic season, when he played for Karnataka. He was spoken of highly by the people in the know; they had no doubt about his talent, they were merely waiting for him to start expressing himself.
It was fascinating to see Pandey progress through the innings. It wasn't the shots he played that stood out as much as the intent and confidence behind them. He swung his bat merrily at the end but showed plenty of brain earlier on when, time and again, he threaded the vacant spaces on the leg side to rotate the strike. There were a couple of big hits even early on in his innings but there was no visibly aggressive body language. He was sailing along quietly.
There were three moments later that brought out the real Pandey. Against Pragyan Ojha, he played his trademark half-flick half-sweep that one has seen him play in the age -group and domestic cricket. He lunged forward to fetch it from outside off and transported the ball towards the wide midwicket boundary. Ross Taylor charged across for the runs but Pandey stood at his spot before finally taking a couple of steps down the track. A short while later, he hit another one, this time off Jaskaran Singh, to the boundary. This time around, he didn't step out an inch. . The young man was beginning to feel that he belonged there. Soon afterward, he swung RP Singh over the ropes and this time held his pose for a long time. One baby step at a time; one giant leap in confidence.
It's difficult to draw any definite conclusions about the quality of Pandey's batsmanship from this one innings but this was the first clear sign of self-expression from him.
It's all in contrast, of course, to Herschelle Gibbs. After months in the wilderness, he made his comeback in the home series against Australia, held just before the IPL and it's safe to say he was under scrutiny by the national selectors through this tournament. He is on trial not to showcase his talent but to confirm that his mind is in the game. Whether he is in control of himself. Whether he is really hungry for cricketing success. He has proved it so far it in the tournament. And continued it today.
That great ball sense was once again on display. His signature swat-flick - a thing of beauty - was repeatedly deployed; he kept flicking Praveen Kumar with nonchalant ease. In the bar, a teammate of his from the under-19 days told a story from that time. One day a coach overseeing practice asked Gibbs, who was sauntering off, to return to the batting nets. He picked up the bat and, though it was a fast-bowling nets, went in without pads or gloves. Gibbs signalled for the bowling to start and proceeded to demolish the nets bowlers. "He used to play that flick even then. It was always the question about his head." Gibbs has always comes with that asterisk. If he can continue batting as he has done in this tournament, one can see him opening for South Africa in that 2011 World Cup.