The soundest advice Manish Pandey’s dad probably received in his life came from former Test and Rajasthan cricketer Parthasarathy Sharma. He told the dad who’d just been transferred to Roorkee to leave his 13 year-old son behind in Bengaluru where KSCA’s structured cricketing set-up would hone the skills of the talented youngster.
The senior Pandey, a military officer, had been posted to Bengaluru when Manish was just seven years of age. He’d come from Sri Ganganagar, a remote Rajasthan town along the international border with Pakistan. He knew Sharma, coach with BCCI’s National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, from his Rajasthan days and sought his advice as his young son Manish was adamant that he’d remain in Bengaluru and pursue his cricketing dreams rather than relocate to the Cantonment of Roorkee, close to Dehradun in Uttarakhand.
In Bengaluru, while studying in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Manish’s potential had already been identified by KSCA’s unique Talent Resource Development Officers (TRDOs) who promptly directed him to the KSCA Cricket Academy. They saw in him an exceptional talent as fielder and a batting ability backed by the temperament to periodically come up with double hundreds.
Thus while the family shifted to Roorkee, Manish stayed put in Bengaluru where round-the-year coaching, physical training and matches led to his rapid development as a cricketer.
His coaches liked his outstanding hand-eye coordination and also a rare ability to strike the ball with exquisite timing. He did not have a conventional on-drive, but rather one that was more like a slap shot. Wisely they did not tinker with that although the prognosis among them was that the technique would let him down against the swinging ball. But Manish circumvented the issue with his reflexes and street-sharp batting intelligence.
Along the way, in U-15, U-17 & U-19 age group tournaments, the slim, right handed batsman notched up huge scores and eventually, in 2008, gained selection into the Virat Kohli-led Under-19 World Cup winning squad. Besides Kohli and Pandey, Ravinder Jadeja and, pointedly, Saurav Tiwary were also in that team which won the coveted trophy in Malaysia.
The following year, Pandey made history by becoming the first Indian to score a century in IPL cricket. His explosive 114 in a winning cause for RCB against Deccan Chargers at the Centurion in South Africa came off only 73 balls (10x4, 4x6) and marked him out as a big-stage batsman.
Pandey, right from his junior cricket-playing days, had exhibited this uncanny ability of making his presence felt either with the bat or while fielding in big matches. A great stop, or catch or run-out every now and then ensured that he was never out of the game even when not batting.
Despite turning out for Mumbai Indians in the inaugural IPL season and subsequently for RCB during the next two seasons, Pandey was smarting from the fact that his former India U-19 team-mate Tiwary was taking home Rs 7.3 crore from RCB just because he had played one ODI while he himself, an equal if not superior cricketer, had to do with just Rs 20 lakhs.
He went incommunicado and resisted RCB’s attempts to get in touch with him at the end of his contract period even as whispers were doing the rounds that his agent was negotiating with other teams for the 2011 season. (As per erstwhile IPL rules only Indian players who had represented India were included in the player auction. Other Indian cricketers picked by the franchises instead got a fixed sum depending on the years of first class cricket they’d played).
The IPL Governing Council slapped a four-match ban on him for breaching player guidelines even as it accepted his decision to turn out for Pune Warriors, rather than RCB.
The thing about Pandey is that he has always had this streak of individuality and it expresses itself time and again in different ways. For instance when he was an Under-12 cricketer he loved to bat so much that he’d hog the strike in the matches. He’d pick a single off the last ball of every over and thus retain strike to the extent of virtually shutting his non-striker out of the match. The coaches had to speak sharply to him about this disdain for his partner.
Pandey also started playing second division league cricket from a very young age. But while he did score huge runs, he simply did not show the same enthusiasm for fielding. However the team could not drop him because he kept making those big scores. His coach of those days used to lament that he had great fielding ability but was simply not interested in that chore. Ultimately though, the competitive spirit in him goaded him to put his mind into that aspect of the game. Since he always had the talent, even during his under-12 days, it came as no surprise that he turned to be one of the best fielders in the fray.
But his penchant to approach tasks in his own way remained and this differentiated him from the others. In this regard, one tale deserves to be repeated: A young Karnataka team led by Rahul Dravid was taking on Punjab in a crucial Ranji Trophy quarter-final tie in 2009. The home team was reeling at 272 for seven while grimly chasing 300 when a confident Punjab summoned the second new ball with the intention of wiping out young Pandey and the tailenders.
Pandey, though, responded to the new threat in bizarrely unorthodox fashion by stepping out and lofting the bewildered Punjab fast bowlers over their heads for sixes and fours. He raced to his century, ensured first-innings lead for his team and with it Karnataka advanced to the semifinals.
His nonchalant, sudden aggression and unconventional approach caught Punjab totally off guard. Even a couple of Karnataka's better accomplished batsmen confessed in admiration that leave alone going for those strokes, they would not have even dreamt of playing them given the delicate state of the match.
Significantly, Pandey has tremendous belief in his methods and does not always play to the script. Of course sometimes things go awry. Like it did in 2011 when he, literally a nobody at that stage, took the huge risk of snubbing RCB and thereby incurred the wrath of some really big folk in Indian cricket.
He got away lightly with a mere four-match IPL ban. That year he suffered another blow when a hernia operation kept him out of the game for a while. But these setbacks did not dampen his joy for batting. He continued making those big hundreds and double hundreds in Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy matches, besides an unbeaten 135 for India ‘A’ against Sri Lanka, but the selectors, strangely, remained unmoved.
However, KKR skipper Gautam Gambhir professed that his franchise loved Pandey’s attitude and devil-may-care approach to batting and zealously bid for him at the auction. They bagged him for Rs 1.7 crore. But more than the money, Pandey, who passionately loves the good life, had found a kindred soul in owner Shah Rukh Khan.
His appreciation of this was the swashbuckling innings of 94 from just 50 balls (7x4, 6x6) in the IPL final which won the trophy for KKR and SRK. The spontaneous high decibel, high energy celebrations that followed had an uninhibited Pandey being as demonstrative and exuberant as that extraordinary showman SRK.
The most important aspect of the Pandey persona is that right through his career he has reveled in being an impact player on the big stage. Whether Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, Irani Cup, IPL , India ‘A’ or now with the main Indian team, he has shown remarkable ability to express himself under pressure.
It is as though a unique channel opens up for him mentally during these periods and keeps him calm and totally focused during tight situations. Those who know his game and his rare ability to bat and deliver under pressure were always surprised that the national selectors opted for lesser players. Or even when they chose him and he responded with an ODI debut 71 against Zimbabwe in Harare they inexplicably turned their backs on him.
Over the last two years the selectors’ continued indifference to his skill and performance seemed to have left Pandey frustrated. That he did not allow it to consume him was brought out forcefully by that sensational knock on Saturday at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The unbeaten innings of 104 off a mere 81 deliveries highlighted all the hallmarks of his batting under pressure: Calm exterior, unflappable temperament, precision placement into gaps in the field, crisp stroke-play, improvised shots and aggressive running between the wickets.
Those watching him excel for the first time were wonder struck by the poise on the big stage despite an apparent lack of international experience. But for cricket lovers who had followed Pandey’s exploits over the past decade it was a vindication of their belief in him.
However, what might never change is the fear of god that Pandey puts into his teammates when he gets behind the wheel. He has an Audi, two-seater Mercedes Benz and the Suzuki Hayabusa motor bike reflecting his love for cars, bikes and speed. So much so that one teammate said he'd rather walk than take his chances in any vehicle being driven by Pandey. Obviously Indian cricket’s latest find drives as he bats-aggressively and by taking chances.