Impact players are a rarity. They may not be in the spotlight when the going is good. But when the team is in a tough spot or is engaged in an important game, it is the impact players who revel under pressure and thus hog the limelight. In crunch situations, their adrenaline kicks in as if it were on auto mode. This instantly expands their aura while their focus narrows down to the task at hand. Perceptibly, their hand-eye coordination assumes magical proportions as they slip into the zone.
One has to just watch Manish Pandey when pushed into a spot to know how gloriously pressure works on these gifted individuals. It is during those extreme moments of stress that folks like him find their mojo. And what a spectacle it then becomes!
Pandey is a special cricketer. He finds his own way to respond to a crisis and much of it is intuitive. On Wednesday, for instance, he mixed his slap-pulls over mid-wicket with his sliced drives through point to brazen his way out of trouble.
Pandey does not have an on-drive. Instead what he unleashes is a unique ‘slap-shot’ for which exquisite timing and loads of confidence are vital ingredients. The manner in which he deposited left-arm spinner Tabraiz Shamsi twice into the crowd beyond mid-wicket (and later the pacy Chris Morris too) were a spectacular demonstration of his ‘slap-shot’.
In the first instance, India were not yet out of the woods, having lost three top-order batsmen rather cheaply. But Pandey responded to the crisis in a manner that he best understood.
Pandey’s execution of his method is quite simple. He takes his front foot out of the way and this gives him the option of taking the long-on-mid-wicket route or the cover-point region route. At times, he blasts the ball from off-stump line towards mid-wicket. At other times, a similar delivery ball is slice-driven to point or flat-batted through covers-long off.
Significantly, Pandey has great hands coupled with terrific bat speed. There are times when the bowler’s line gets closer than expected. In such situations, Pandey guides the ball to third man or even hits the ball with a horizontal bat over the bowler’s head. In all these manoeuvres, the most striking aspect is his tremendous self-belief and the confidence to go with his methods.
Karnataka cricketers still talk in awe of a Ranji Trophy knock-out match against Punjab a few years ago when Pandey was still a kid in a team that had many stalwarts. The team was seven wickets down and some way short of the Punjab total when the latter claimed the second new ball in an attempt to clean up the tail and young Pandey.
Pandey responded like only Pandey can. He just stepped out and smashed the fast bowlers over long-on and mid-wicket for sixes. He raced to his hundred and Karnataka grabbed the crucial lead. One of Karnataka’s accomplished stalwarts confessed he would not even think of playing such shots, let alone executing them!
Pandey’s knock at the Centurion was not a ton. But his unbeaten 79 in 48 balls (6x4, 3x6) had a similar telling impact. He stepped into the arena when India had lost three wickets for 45. From then until the last two overs — when Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the great finisher, went berserk with his strokeplay — it was Pandey and his refreshing method of carving up the South African bowlers which really stood out.
The Centurion was the venue when Pandey, a teenager at that time, became the first Indian to score a century in IPL. That 2009 Royal Challengers Bangalore team had a number of accomplished batsmen: Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid, Ross Taylor, Virat Kohli and others. But it was Pandey who stole the thunder with a 73-ball unbeaten 114.
Another match-winning unbeaten century worth recalling was the ODI one against Australia at Sydney in 2016. Pandey struck a superb 104 not out from just 81 balls and was instrumental in India chasing down a stiff target of 331.
On that distant day, he had added 94 invaluable runs with Dhoni. On Wednesday, although it ultimately proved to be in a losing cause, it was the pair’s riveting 98-run stand in 56 balls that almost negated the disadvantage of having to bowl second in wet and disconcerting conditions.
It is a pity that the gifted Pandey has not played more often for India. His methods are unique and he has delivered on more than one occasion. But carping critics, whose appreciation of the game seldom goes beyond the straight and narrow, cannot digest the fact that he is a player who think differently, has an ice-cool temperament in a crisis and has his own unorthodox way of disrupting bowling attacks. They make snide remarks, idiotic comments about technique and deliberately attempt to belittle his work.
The fact though is simple: Pandey is an impact player and the more such players India can fit into the playing eleven the better for the long-term success of the team.