Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo
Eight months ago, Manish Pandey was a no-name cricketer who had flopped at the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia, failed in his first domestic season, and been a fringe player in the inaugural IPL. Then came the out-of-the-blue century for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, and his profile skyrocketed.
That innings contained plenty of miscues and clear-the-front-leg slogs to midwicket, leaving skeptics wondering whether he could cut it in first-class cricket. Pandey's response was emphatic: a country-high 882 runs in the season, not many of which came from fill-your-boots innings on flat tracks with the game dead.
Pandey has turned into Karnataka's Mr Fix-it. He grabbed the headlines with a belligerent 194 in the season-opener against a strong Uttar Pradesh after his team were 27 for 3. There was the 72-ball 67 to shepherd Karnataka to a stiff 241 to get five points against Saurashtra. And the vital 115 to drag his side past Punjab's first-innings total, an effort that secured a spot in the semi-finals for only the second time in 11 years.
Perhaps to bulldoze any lingering doubts, he was set his sternest test in the final: to chase the stiffest ever target in the title clash, against the 38-time champions on a pitch helping the seamers, with the top-order folding meekly and the rock-steady Rahul Dravid watching the game at home. Pandey nearly pulled it off in an exhilarating counterattack that should propel him into the bunch of contenders eyeing a spot in the national squad.
A solid defence and resolute temperament underpin his flashy stroke-making, all of which were on display at the Gangothri Glades. Aavishkar Salvi had nabbed him for a first-ball duck in the first innings, but this time three of Salvi's first four deliveries were dispatched to boundaries. The lack of runs from his partner, G Satish, also didn't affect him, as he continued to attack whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Mumbai coach Praveen Amre had spoken about Pandey's tendency to play a little loosely outside off, and that nearly cut short Pandey's innings on 44, but the nick hit wicketkeeper Vinayak Samant on his wrists instead of going into his gloves. He watchfully defended for a few overs after that before unleashing perhaps the shot of the innings: an authoritative front-foot pull to midwicket off the quickest bowler of the match, Ajit Agarkar, to raise his half-century.
Karnataka started the fourth day needing 203 more runs. Instead of worrying about the number of wickets that tumbled in the mornings over the past three days, he just continued to blaze away. Agarkar was taken for three boundaries in an over, and there was no slowing down in the nineties either, staying there for only four deliveries. A periscopic hit to fine leg brought up an unforgettable century. But with Karnataka still a long way off, there were no extravagant celebrations, just a calm wave of the bat to the dressing room and the fans after removing his helmet.
As the number of runs required shrank, Mumbai started to look ragged. An on-drive from Pandey off Ramesh Powar just about eluded mid-on and had Salvi on his backside after he sprinted across from midwicket, only to get a hand on the ball and see it trickle for four. A quick single to mid-on off the next ball got an extra run after the direct-hit ricochet away from the fielder backing-up. The vociferous crowd was sure Karnataka were heading to a historic victory.
It was not be, though, as yet again Mumbai found a way to break the opposition. Iqbal Abdulla, who had bowled all of two overs in the match, managed to get one to turn away from Pandey and take the outside edge to a delighted Jaffer at first slip. Pandey could only watch from the pavilion as his team-mates were wheedled out and Karnataka's wait for a Ranji title continued.
The IPL innings gave him his ticket out of anonymity, and today's effort will guarantee him a place in the ones-to-watch list of the national selectors. "I rate this innings equally with my IPL hundred, both came in important matches," he said. "Mumbai is the best side in domestic cricket, so it was very satisfying to get a hundred against them."