If we were to have one image associated with every player that has played international cricket, MS Dhoni would probably be remembered by his six in the 2011 World Cup final, Lance Klusener would be linked to an image of him running to the pavilion after South Africa tied the 1999 World Cup semi-final and Sachin Tendulkar’s mention would bring up an image of him walking down the aisle of Wankhede one last time.
For Manish Pandey, it would, in all likelihood, be him carving Mitchell Marsh through third man for four to reach his maiden ODI hundred with India needing six to win from four balls. He would seal the game in the next ball and establish himself as another of India's icy cool, laidback finishers in just his 4th ODI.
It has been 25 months since Pandey showed at the highest level, in front of an Aussie crowd, the unflappable temperament he possesses. However, he warms the bench as India struggle to identify the right candidate to up the ante in the final few overs of a game.
At Wanderers in the fourth ODI, India got stuck in a rut after a great start and ended up making just 59 runs in the final 10 overs. At Port Elizabeth, even as India celebrated their first series victory in the Rainbow Nation, their inability to kick on from good starts provided by the top three stood out.
The dismissals of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli before the last few overs led to India’s middle-order crawling their way to 274 when they looked well set to make a 300-plus score. Just 55 runs came in the last ten overs and they lost three wickets in this period. Of course, the supreme brilliance of the wrist spinners meant that India won by a fairly big margin. But it is probably time that they accepted that their middle-order is only another ‘Champions Trophy 2017 final’ away from being dismantled.
Why the management is waiting for something similar to unfold when they have the option of investing in the nonchalance of Pandey is beyond logic.
Pandey is cut from the same cloth as a MS Dhoni in his younger days and possesses the same disdain and fearlessness that made the former Indian skipper a crowd favourite. If anything, Pandey has already showcased this multiple times but sadly it has gone unnoticed in the alluring prospect of a few part-time off-breaks.
It is interesting to note that in the five ODIs he has batted at the No 6 position, Pandey averages 45.66, and more importantly, strikes at a rate of 118.10. He may have just one half-century and his average has been boosted by two not-out scores, but it is his go-hell-for-leather rate of scoring and penchant for tough runs which should ideally catch the selectors’ eyes.
The first step to blooding Pandey in the line-up would be to accept that he comes with a disclaimer: he may not make runs when everyone else does. As Kolkata Knight Riders stared at a monstrous 200-run target in the 2014 IPL final, Pandey, who had made just one half-century in the fifteen matches prior to that in the season, knew that he had to intervene.
He walked out in the fifth ball of the run chase with Kolkata’s back against the wall. 98 balls later — 50 of which he faced — he had 94 against his name and had all but overshadowed Wriddhiman Saha’s marvellous ton.
It is well known that he is the first Indian to make an IPL hundred. But more than these big innings — which he has had in plenty — it is his quick-fire, high-voltage knocks that complete him as a player.
In the 2017 season of the IPL, he showed an exceptional ability to switch gears and go bonkers at just the right moment. Take his 47-ball 81 against the Mumbai Indians, where he made 31 off the last eight balls, or the 49-ball 69 against Delhi Daredevils after Kolkata were reduced to 21/3 in a chase of 169 and you notice that there is a clear-cut ability in the 28-year-old to take the game by the scruff of its neck.
Even as he made a return from an injury that saw him miss the climax of tenth season of the IPL and the Champions Trophy, Pandey exhibited his unmistakable disposition to turn on the heat in the crucial moments of a game.
Skippering India A against South Africa A at Pretoria in August, Pandey anchored a tricky chase of 267 with a flamboyant 85-ball 93. He warmed the bench in three of the five ODIs against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, but in the three matches he figured in India's plans — two ODIs and one T20I — he slammed two half-centuries, both at a strike rate greater than 100.
The Australian series which followed saw India blood him in all five games but he was played at No 4 in two of the five ODIs as India fruitlessly tried to identify the right man at the crucial batting position. In the three games he batted down the order, Pandey made a 32-ball 36*, a 25-ball 33 (both at No 6) and an unbeaten run-a-ball 11 (from No 5). He got just one chance to bat in the three ODIs against Sri Lanka at home.
By the time India reached the ODI leg of the South African tour, their thinking had changed quite a bit. Ajinkya Rahane, who was earlier zeroed in as a back-up opener, was suddenly deemed good enough to fix India’s No 4 woes and Shreyas Iyer, who made back-to-back half-centuries against Sri Lanka back home, was brought in when Kedar Jadhav was down with a hamstring injury.
The move was a fair one when you consider Iyer's returns but the Mumbaikar isn't an ideal No 5 batsman by any stretch of the imagination. He loves the hard leather ball coming onto the bat and is a natural top-order batsman. His inability to up the ante against the soft ball has been sorely exposed and his shoddy catching further muddles things. Jadhav, on the other hand, has been offering Kohli some much needed back-up overs, especially with Hardik Pandya's bowling vulnerable to visits to the cleaners every now and then. But his batting — supposedly his main gig — hasn't quite made an impression.
An innate gift to make his presence felt — be it with the bat or in the field — makes Pandey a far more appealing option. The manner in which he walked away from Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2011 and switched allegiance to Pune Warriors is another example of his daredevilry. It is also this attitude that attracted Gautam Gambhir to him at Kolkata Knight Riders. A Rs 11 crore deal for him from the usually heedful Sunrisers Hyderabad at the IPL auctions last month revealed the kind of value his big-match temperament holds.
It is perhaps time for India to make a long-term investment in Pandey for he can switch his gameplay adeptly as per situation and also cover up for India’s run rate in the death overs. An ability to churn out big runs in tough situations makes him an enticing option for India in the middle-order. Yet he hasn't been given the backing or confidence that a player like him deserves.
As they take on the Proteas in the final match of a series which have already won, India might want to take a punt on Pandey considering the World Cup is close by and an over-reliance on the top three isn't ideal, as their Champions Trophy debacle showed.
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