A brief fling, not a long-term plan - Manish Pandey's latest comeback

To be an ODI regular beyond the Sri Lanka tour, Pandey must go past Iyer, Yadav and Kishan

Varun Shetty
Varun Shetty
Manish Pandey is an all-sport man, India v South Africa, 1st ODI, Dharamsala, March 12, 2020

Manish Pandey's return, with India's 25 best players in England, has all the makings of yet another brief fling  •  BCCI

Manish Pandey's most memorable innings in Indian colours is probably his unbeaten 104 in Sydney in 2016, when India chased down 331 to avoid a 5-0 series defeat against Australia. It was only his fourth ODI appearance, an opportunity that had come seven years after he became the IPL's first Indian century-maker in the 2009 edition.
It seemed like a breakthrough innings at a time when India had four ODI heavyweights - Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and then captain MS Dhoni - and little else in their batting order, a kind of innings that Dhoni said, "gives you [an] extra 15 games to settle in and start to do what you need to do".
Getting 15 ODIs - numbers will tell you 50 overs is the limited-overs format that suits him more - in a row has remained an unfulfilled dream for Pandey, who has played a total of 26 matches in five stints. But, as unsurprisingly, it is not over for him yet. During the Sri Lanka tour starting this Sunday, Pandey will make another comeback, just months after being omitted from BCCI's annual contracts' list, in a year where he missed most of the Vijay Hazare Trophy 50-over tournament because of an injury and returned unremarkable numbers in the IPL.
Pandey played in India's next eight games after that Sydney match - his second go with the ODI side. In the three games in Zimbabwe, where India's top three were so dominant, he only batted two balls all tour. The next gig - five ODIs against New Zealand at home - was his first full series for India. It was India's penultimate series before the Champions Trophy in 2017.
Pandey started the series at No. 4 and made starts on which he didn't build. In the next three games, he was used between Nos. 5 and 6 and made his highest score of the series - an unbeaten 28 in a chase alongside Virat Kohli in the third ODI - before tapering off and finishing with a duck in the fifth match. That was in October 2016, and he didn't play another game for almost a year. In the intervening period, Kohli took over as India captain and brought back a 35-year-old Yuvraj Singh, who made a roaring comeback before being left out a series after the Champions Trophy. Pandey was withdrawn with injury, and the two middle-order spots were taken by Singh and Kedar Jadhav.
In October 2017, Pandey was back in the Indian squad touring Sri Lanka. He made the XI in the last two matches and struck an unbeaten 42-ball 50 in a partnership of 101 with Dhoni in the fourth ODI, and then scored 36 in a partnership of 99 with Kohli in the final ODI.
This resulted in his second full series for India, the five matches against Australia at home. Once again, Pandey began the series at No. 4 and failed, before being pushed down to No. 6, where he made crucial 30s, one in a successful chase, and one where India just fell short.
Pandey's return, with India's 25 best players in England, has all the makings of yet another brief fling. It does have a whiff of a lucky break to it. What it doesn't seem to have is a suggestion of a long-term plan.
In the next month, Pandey found himself out of the XI again for a series against New Zealand, losing his place to Dinesh Karthik, who had originally replaced KL Rahul from the squad that had played Australia. Later in the year, he played all three matches against Sri Lanka at home, batted once, and made 2 during India's infamous slide to 29 for 7 in Dharamsala.
After that series, Pandey has played in four matches for India, three of them early last year against Australia and New Zealand, despite missing out in the race for a World Cup spot in 2019, with the team management preferring batters like Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant at the time. In the year leading up to the 2019 World Cup, India tried seven batters at No. 4, but Pandey wasn't one of them. He played only a single match during that period, at the Asia Cup.
The reason he keeps coming back, perhaps, is that since the start of 2015, he averages 60.28 in 83 List A innings and strikes at 95.93, leaving selectors little choice but to keep him in mind. The pattern is almost set: he becomes undroppable through his performances at domestic and representational level, but misses out on the XI through various reasons, and then makes another case with another bumper domestic season.
Is his average of 25.91 in 18 ODI innings since that hundred in Sydney a consequence of that uncertainty or is that uncertainty a result of his performances?
There aren't a lot of Pandey media interactions on the internet. The ones that exist have a general theme of him trying to be mentally strong, not looking too far ahead, and accepting that this is, perhaps, the toughest era to break into an Indian XI in your desired role. During India's tour of South Africa in 2018, he "half-joked" that he had to see a doctor because of the uncertainty.
Trying to understand what has happened, or, indeed, what the plan was, is difficult because India's selection policy itself has been haphazard, particularly when major tournaments are around. Singh's return in 2017 is a case in point. It sent a message that they would not mind picking a decent option with experience over an exciting option with potential, but then they went the opposite way with Ambati Rayudu just before the 2019 World Cup. In the time between those two tournaments, batters like Ajinkya Rahane and Suresh Raina found themselves in the mix while IPL performances also started to count for ODI selection.
Pandey's return, with India's 25 best players in England, has all the makings of yet another brief fling. It does have a whiff of a lucky break to it, one you wouldn't grudge him given how his career has gone. What it doesn't seem to have is a suggestion of a long-term plan. To play limited-overs cricket beyond this tour, Pandey will have to go past Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan.
Perhaps, this is an endeavour to give him match time in a T20 World Cup year - a format in which current form often trumps long-term planning - but like any other point during the last five years, the uncertainty continues to linger.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo