Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
WBBL 2023 (1)
BAN v NZ (1)
Abu Dhabi T10 (3)
Legends League (1)
IND v AUS (1)
"I'm sad I didn't get to bat in the last couple of matches, where I was very eager to bat." The twinkle in Manish Pandey's eyes when he said that matched that in his footwork all through this season's Vijay Hazare Trophy.
Pandey is now the captain who has led Karnataka to a major domestic triumph on home ground, a privilege not given to many. He has also been the tournament's best batsman. There may be four players above him on the run-scorers list - Devdutt Padikkal, Abhinav Mukund, KL Rahul and B Aparajith - but the only real rival he's had over the past few weeks was Mumbai's teenage double-centurion Yashasvi Jaiswal. And here's why.
The lowest score Pandey has been dismissed for in the entire tournament was 48. It came against Hyderabad, the only game Karnataka lost in the whole Vijay Hazare Trophy. For a team that boasted a batting line-up of Rahul, Padikkal and Karun Nair besides Pandey, that Hyderabad match showed just how vital their captain was.
It was not just the quantum of runs, of which Pandey scored 525 at an average of 105. It was not just his pace of scoring - a tournament strike-rate of 108.02 and 22 sixes, the third highest in the tournament. It was not just that after that Hyderabad game, Pandey ensured he stayed unbeaten in all subsequent chases. It was all this and the ability to look completely the master of the situation every time he batted.
Karnataka had Rahul at the top of the order, and though he was coming off a poor tour of West Indies, he was facing bowlers who were a notch lower in pace and quality. Still, he played well within himself, always focused on seeing out the early spells, and opening up only when he was well entrenched. Padikkal was similar in his approach, while Nair - who had begun the season with a glut of runs in the Duleep Trophy - suddenly found them hard to come by in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
So Karnataka turned to Pandey, who looked like he had more than one shot to every ball most times. His dismissals always came against the run of play. It wasn't as if the bowlers had built up pressure, or started troubling him. When he stayed the course, as he did against Chhattisgarh in the league stages after coming in at 25 for 2 in eight overs, he ended up with 142* off 118 balls that completely shut the opposition out. He looked, in short, like a batsman who belonged to a higher level than the one he was playing at.
"It was a good season for me," Pandey said. "I thought, batting at No.4, I had to be there at the end, taking that extra responsibility for the team's cause."
That Pandey can do it at the highest level, against tough opposition is not in doubt. His stunning century at Sydney in early 2016 to salvage a win for India was evidence of his batting chops. His 'one step forwards, two steps back' international career is more a product of bad luck combined with bad timing than a reflection of his skills.
So perhaps he can take inspiration from his team-mate, who flew down specially to take part in the semi-final and final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy. That Pandey didn't get to bat in those two games was also down to how well Mayank Agarwal played. In the semi-final against Chhattisgarh, he sauntered to 47 not out in 33 balls, almost casually dismantling the bowling attack. In the final, he was even better. A century seemed there for the taking, but rain meant he had to be content with 69* off 55, an innings that was almost exclusively composed of stunning shots one after another.
"Oh look, when an Indian cricketer who has done so well against a nation like South Africa… and he's played the top bowlers, he comes and plays at this level, obviously it looks far more easy than what actually is happening," Tamil Nadu captain Dinesh Karthik said about Agarwal's knock. "You can plan (for the batsman), but at the end of the day you've got to give credit where it's due. He kept us at bay with whatever we could try and throw at him, and made sure he had answers for it."
Karthik could have well been describing any of Pandey's innings through the tournament. Now all that remains for Pandey is to replicate how Agarwal has transitioned domestic dominance into sustained international success.