Manoj Tiwary hits Zaheer Khan, India's strike bowler who tormented Bengal in the first innings, over mid-off for a mighty six, watches the ball thud against the boundary board and walks away towards square-leg. He then lets his bat rest against his thigh, unstraps his gloves, pulls his shirt sleeve up to form creases around the shoulder area, walks back towards the stumps, holds the bat pointing skywards and bends slightly along the knee.
For a moment he reminds viewers of the audacious Kevin Pietersen just after he's fearlessly swept Shane Warne out of the rough in front of square. When you ask him if it's a coincidence, he lets out a shy smile and says, " Main deewana hoon uska [I am a big fan of Pietersen's]. I just love his aggression. And this [styling himself according to Pietersen] started the first time I saw him." And somewhere there's more than just a routine that's Pietersen-esque; he has got a swagger to go along as well.
When Tiwary hits he hits, when he defends he defends. Whatever he does, he seems to know what he's doing. There are no half-measures, no lack of clarity. When his team is down, he attacks, usually picking out the best bowler. He's aware of his technical limitations and makes no bones about it. He likes to score quickly, but doesn't stick to the book. He's not wary of taking the aerial route, yet there's is no recklessness to his batting. He leaves a number of balls outside the off stump, has a plan as to when and what to hit.
When he gets in, he scores big - his 94 today was the first time this season when he'd missed a century after crossing 50. And the three earlier times he'd gone on to at least 150. One must recognise the bucketfuls of confidence behind the boyish frame. "I am not scared of anything; I know I am good." It shows even in his defensive shots, pushing a ball back to the bowler and, just as he's been eye-balled, disdainfully walking away towards square leg, concentrating on pulling his shirt sleeve up. At the same time, he's not one to shirk away from a sledge or two. "I enjoy it," he says. "I enjoy that a bowler is making an extra effort to get me out. And I always give it back when it gets verbal."
Tiwary couldn't finish off the job today, falling to a rash stroke in a critical juncture. Until then, he'd gone after Zaheer, smashing 40 off 42 deliveries, clattering seven fours and a six. And while he was there, in partnership with Deep Dasgupta and Ganguly, even 472 looked achievable. But the nerves seem to take over as he closed in on a century. He tried too many shots, including a reverse-sweep off Ramesh Powar, before finally slashing at a wide one from Abhishek Nair. Dasgupta admitted it was an uncharacteristic phase. "This is his first half-century in the season and he has got 796 runs. Had this been his first century I would have agreed he was nervous." Tiwary preferred to dead-bat the question. "I was not nervous, nor was I flustered that the runs were not coming. That's my style of play, it sometimes doesn't pay off."
Yet one musn't forget what a memorable season it has been. Two innings stand out. His 151 against Karnataka in the semi-final at Eden Gardens followed a first-innings duck and was made under serious pressure after Bengal had let a first-innings advantage slip while chasing 307 on the last day. He's also managed a double-century to bat Mumbai out of the league game at Kolkata, allowing Bengal, for the first time in their Ranji Trophy history, to inflict a follow-on on Mumbai.
But will he be able to carry this confidence forward as smoothly as he did from age groups cricket to first-class cricket? Are we over-estimating him? Not if Sourav Ganguly is to be believed. "He is one for the future [for India]," Ganguly insisted while prasing Tiwary's efforts in the final. He's already earned the moniker "chhota dada". For, like Ganguly, Tiwary doesn't back away from a fight, always has a trick up his sleeve, and has a special fondness for the big-match environment. He's captained Bengal to a Cooch Behar Trophy [Under-19] triumph this year, where he scored a fifty against Mumbai in the final, and a double-century in the semi-final. And the journey from age-groups cricket to first-class has been a smooth transition. "The purpose of batting everywhere is to make runs; bowlers are meant to be hit," he says, "And I enjoy the challenge."
He's become the highest run-getter for Bengal in a single Ranji season, overtaking Arun Lal's record in 1993-94. Four more runs and he would have ended the season with an average of 100. Unintentionally, and at a more trivial level, he can claim comparisons with another great. He would prefer sticking to Pietersen though; Sir Don Bradman might not have lofted so many shots in the air in an entire season.