After India churned out a second victory against the Aussies at Kolkata, the Indian players and staff were seen mashing cake on Manish Pandey in a video released by BCCI. It wasn't Pandey who had won India the game. He has, in fact, done little of note in the two ODIs of the series thus far. The cake mashing was Pandey’s belated birthday celebration and in the video one can see MS Dhoni holding Pandey from behind while the others paste cake on his face.
It's just a birthday celebration. But for a moment atleast, Pandey would have wished that the team was celebrating his match-winning performance. The last few months have been a mixed bag for India's latest choice to to bat at the No 4 position. He spent most of 2017 injured, missed out on the Champions Trophy after initially finding himself in the scheme of things, put in pleasing performances for the India A team (scores of 55, 41*, 86*, 93* and 32*) in the triangular 'A' series in South Africa and returned in Sri Lanka only to spend three out of five ODIs on the bench.
However, in the three matches he played (2 ODIs and 1 T20I) in Sri Lanka, Pandey managed to score two unbeaten half-centuries and a 36. Those aren't exactly bad numbers but has he done enough to nail down that No 4 spot in the team?
The answer would be no. In the two ODIs thus far against Australia, Pandey has scores of 0 and 3 and the manner of his dismissals in the two ODIs does not inspire any kind of confidence. But then, how bad is two failures? He has scores of 50*, 36 and 51* in the three matches, across formats, prior to these two ODIs.
But take a moment to look at where India plan to fit in Pandey in their ODI team. The only spot under scrutiny in the current ODI team is No 4 in the batting order. There are as many as four batsmen fighting it out for this spot in the current setup — Ajinkya Rahane, Kedar Jadhav, KL Rahul and Pandey.
Of these Jadhav is fairly settled at No 5 or 6, depending on where Dhoni bats. But the other three are in an intense tussle for that one spot in the team. Rahane, of course, is a back-up opener too and with Shikhar Dhawan out, is set to play all five games as opener. But when the Delhi southpaw returns, Rahane will surely be in the mix to occupy that No 4 spot.
So far, Pandey hasn't been poor and has even declared his readiness to bat anywhere in the line-up. "Middle order is where I bat. Starting from No 4 to No 6 I have batted at different positions for India. I have to be ready for whatever spot I get. So if I get a chance then I need to get some runs and cement that spot for myself first," Pandey had said at one of the post-match conferences in Sri Lanka.
But right now, the only spot open for debate is No 4. And India has had quite a lot of trouble filling it since the 2015 ODI World Cup. They have tried as many as 14 batsmen at No 4 in ODIs since the World Cup. Of these, Rahane and Yuvraj Singh have played the most number of matches with Virat Kohli a close third. The skipper, however, is set in stone at No 3 and is no longer a competitor for the others vying for the elusive spot in the batting line-up
MS Dhoni was tried as a brief experiment but somehow failed to adapt to his role there and has been pushed back to No 5. Rahul was India’s latest experiment at No 4, in the Sri Lankan series, but met a deceitful Akila Dananjaya and averaged less than 10 in the series.
With Pandey being preferred over Rahul for the Australia series, but the flamboyant middle-order batsman has failed to make it his own in the two opportunities thus far. He might, in all likelihood, get the whole series to make a mark, but so far the big numbers have gone missing.
Tracing Pandey's ODI career, we can see that he has one hundred, a magnificent match-winning knock at Sydney against the Aussies, and a couple of half-centuries in 16 matches. There have been five single-digit scores — two of them ducks — and four scores in the range of 10 to 30.
All of this points towards a trend of not capitalising on his starts, if at all he gets one. This doesn't quite auger well for Pandey considering that India have quite a lot of options to try in his stead. At No 4, since the 2015 World Cup, Rahane, MS Dhoni and Ambati Rayudu have fared better than him. The last of those, Rayudu, is someone whose career Pandey needs to closely analyse.
In 34 ODIs, Rayudu made 1055 runs at an average of 50.23 with two hundreds and six half-centuries, yet finds himself out of contention at the moment. In all fairness, Rayudu did little wrong in the few chances India gave him in ODIs.
The experienced duo of Suresh Raina, seen vigorously working out in the gym in a video he posted on Twitter recently, and Yuvraj Singh are also pushing for places themselves.
Two failures are quite alright for any batsman but Pandey may not get a better opportunity to cement down his spot in the team. Rahane is cozy as an opener for the five games, Rahul not preferred, Yuvraj has been dropped just now and isn't ripe for a comeback as yet, Raina is still out of the radar and Rayudu is forgotten.
This leaves Pandey as the only option India have in this series at No 4. It is a more than an ideal opportunity for the youngster to churn out some eye-catching performances and make that position his own. If he doesn't, India may not exactly have the leeway to give Pandey a fair run before he goes the Rayudu-route. Life isn't always fair and neither are the selectors.