Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Himanshu Mantri rose through the age-group circuit as a middle-order batter. When Chandrakant Pandit took over as Madhya Pradesh coach two years ago, he felt Mantri was batting two positions lower than he should. Having worked with him through the off-season, Pandit was convinced that Mantri's technique and grit would be better utilised at the top of the order.
The move up the order was a challenge, and Mantri embraced it. He had debuted in 2019-20, and played three games that season, keeping wickets and batting in the lower middle order. He wasn't seen as a white-ball player, so he spent the 2020-21 season on the fringes of the MP team, with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation of all domestic first-class cricket in India. Mantri was itching for opportunities to prove himself, and when Pandit offered him the opportunity to open this season, he jumped.
Tuesday, the opening day of Madhya Pradesh's Ranji Trophy semi-final against Bengal, brought validation of Pandit's backing and Mantri's belief. He batted through the day, calmly, unhurried by the bowlers or the circumstances around him, to construct a maiden first-class century to bail his team out of choppy waters and end the day unbeaten on 134 off 280 balls as MP moved from a precarious 97 for 4 to 271 for 6.
It was particularly satisfying because only last week, he had missed out on the opportunity to make a three-figure score - he was out for 89 - against Punjab in the quarter-finals. That knock, like this one, helped set the match up for MP.
The essence of Mantri's batting is simple and old school: solidity over style and patience over flamboyance. His set-up and stance are orthodox. He leaves deliveries generously, his bat comes down in a nice, clean arc from a lovely, high backlift as he presses forward to drive, with his bat close to the body. He has a good technique against the short ball, with an ability to pick lengths early and either commit fully to the pull or to bail out of the stroke, swaying away from the line with his gloves safely out of the ball's way.
When he committed to the pull on Tuesday, Mantri ensured he almost always kept it along the ground. It wasn't until he got to his half-century that he brought out the full-blooded pull. Overall, it was an exhibition of batting that wasn't necessarily the most enterprising, but one full of grit. The odd occasion he was beaten by low bounce, he religiously walked up to his partner, tapped bats, tapped the spot on the pitch, took guard again, and batted on, unfazed by demons he couldn't see on a decent batting deck.
If Rajat Patidar was the box-office hero who missed out, out for 7 after coming out at No. 3, Mantri was the able assistant who won critical acclaim for his application, temperament, and execution. And he had invaluable support from an 18-year-old with whom he put together a century stand in the afternoon.
MP had just lost Aditya Shrivastava, their captain, to Shahbaz Ahmed with the score reading 97 for 4. Bengal, seemingly mindful of the impact Uttar Pradesh's Saurabh Kumar had made on the same surface against Karnataka last week, played two left-arm spinners and summoned them in tandem to attack young Akshat Raghuwanshi. A wicket here and Bengal would have been right on top, but Raghuwanshi had other ideas.
He is an attacking batter at the best of times. The kind of player who even Pandit, otherwise known to be a stickler for orthodox cricket, doesn't dissuade from playing the way he likes, even if he may not always say this to the youngster in as many words. In a 20-minute spell soon after Shrivastava's dismissal, Raghuwanshi sent the ball scurrying to the ropes repeatedly to throw the left-arm spinners off gear.
One of the overs from Shahbaz went for 20. When Raghuwanshi stepped out, he lofted them cleanly. He nonchalantly flicked Pradipta Pramanik against the turn and drove with authority. He realised pushing and prodding wasn't going to get MP anywhere. So he took the attack to the bowler. Any semblance of pressure dissipated in no time, and MP were on the march again. While sweeping, he almost always got outside the line to minimise the risk of lbw against the left-arm spinners. It was a game without half-measures.
The confidence in his shot-making was remarkable when you consider this was only Raghuwanshi's fourth first-class game. He only got the opportunity in the middle order this season because Madhya Pradesh didn't have the services of Venkatesh Iyer, and he has responded with a century and three half-centuries. He's only played four innings in first-class cricket, and he's yet to be dismissed for less than 50.
"I saw him in an Under-19 game two years ago," Pandit said of Raghuwanshi. "I had just become Madhya Pradesh coach. He was 17 or something. I'd heard a lot about him but hadn't watched him. I was also umpiring in the game. The first ball he came into bat, he got hit on the pad and it was plumb. I didn't give him out because I wanted to watch him. He made 165.
"That impressed me, and later in the selection-committee meeting we discussed his name. I told the selectors this was a good time to give him a run. The intent and courage he has shown is a great thing. I told the team the same [after the quarterfinals], that you have to learn from this 18-year-old boy."
On Tuesday, Mantri and Raghuwanshi gave viewers two different and equally valid answers to the question of how to approach an innings on a tricky surface that might become harder to bat on as the game progresses. The watching Bengal matters may have taken on a few pointers too. Over coming years, the duo will have plenty more opportunities to thwart opponents in domestic cricket.