Much like several run-chases in the past, the star of the one-off T20I between India and Sri Lanka was none other than Virat Kohli. Although, he led the chase of 171 runs from the front with a scintillating knock of 82 runs, it was Manish Pandey who anchored the innings from the other end with a composed knock of 51 not out off 36 deliveries.
He walked out to bat in the sixth over of the innings when India had lost two wickets for just 45 runs. Skipper Kohli was looking for an able partner at the other end who could support him all the way to chase the total down. And the skipper found exactly what he was looking for in the 27-year old Karnataka batsman.
Pandey, at the young age of 19, had shot to fame by becoming the first ever Indian player to score an century in the Indian Premier League (IPL), doing so in the year 2009. However, one would hardly have imagined back then that it would take him six long years to get his maiden India call-up. He impressed everyone with a fifty on ODI debut against Zimbabwe. But, his moment of fame arrived when he helped India to victory six months later in the final game of the five-match ODI series against Australia, registering an unbeaten 102 off just 84 deliveries.
However, he was back to the bench in the series that followed as other players had been preferred over him in the first team. He didn’t get a place in the squad in ICC World T20 2016, but was brought in as a replacement for Yuvraj Singh in the semi-final. However, he didn’t get a chance to show his mettle with the bat in the match that saw hosts India get eliminated by eventual winners West Indies.
One year down the line, when the opportunities have once again started coming, he is putting his best foot forward. He impressed one and all with his unbeaten 50 in the fourth ODI, and followed it up with a decent outing of 36 in the final match of the series. And when he got the chance to prove himself under pressure once again on Wednesday, albeit in a different format, he grabbed it with both hands.
From the very first delivery of his innings, he showed a busy approach and steadfastness at the crease. He was well aware of the role he needed to play. With Kohli at the other end, he hardly needed to bother about the run-rate. He knew that he only needed to rotate the strike and pick up those odd boundaries on offer.
He maintained the same approach throughout the innings and the result was pretty special. Not only he hit the winning runs but he also brought up his maiden T20I fifty with a boundary over the cover region. The fact that he had hit only four fours and one six in his innings of tells how much he had focused on rotating the strike.
India have lacked a stable middle-order batsman in recent times, especially at No 4. It is extremely difficult to find a player who bats with a safe approach yet maintains a healthy run rate. And India are extremely blessed to have finally found Pandey for that.
A lot of players have been tried and tested at this role. None of either Ajinkya Rahane or KL Rahul have been spared of this test. But, none succeeded to that level to keep their place at that position. Even Yuvraj had been brought back in, MS Dhoni had been elevated, but somehow these players at two-down didn’t quite work out for the 'Men in Blue'.
Pandey though, looks the best fit among all the players tried at that position so far. In 14 ODIs that he has played till date, he averages 49.57 with 347 runs to his name and that includes an away century against Australia. In T20Is, however, he has seldom got the chance to face a fair number of deliveries. But, when he did, he showed what he is capable of.
His IPL statistics give a fair idea about his abilities in the shortest format. In 102 IPL appearances, he has 2,215 runs to his name at a decent average and strike rate of 28.39 and 120.11 respectively. However, in the past four seasons of the league, he has averaged in excess of 30 in three of them. In its 10th edition, he averaged 49.50 with 396 runs in 14 matches, that too at a healthy strike rate of 128.57.
His List-A and first-class career also sheds some light on his ability as a middle-order batsman. In 119 List-A games, he has scored 3,802 runs at 40.44 and a strike rate of 90.24. These statistics are very much what a modern limited-overs team seeks from its middle order batsmen. First-class record also tells a similar story with 5,400 runs in 81 matches at an average of 48.64.
Pandey at the moment is India’s best bet as a middle-order batsman at No 4. With the 2019 World Cup just a one and a half years away, the Indian team management ought to give him as many opportunities as possible to allow him to settle into the role. The selectors should not waste the talent and potential in Pandey as he has the ability to become the mainstay of the Indian batting lineup in both the shorter versions of the game.