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India vs Ireland: Manish Pandey on the Precipice After Another Insipid Show

By: Dileep Premachandran

Edited By: Madhav Agarwal

Cricketnext

Last Updated: July 06, 2018, 17:00 IST

Manish Pandey (BCCI)

Manish Pandey (BCCI)

In The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Any place you love is the world to you.” In the summer of 2009 [winter in the southern hemisphere], Manish Pandey’s world was South Africa’s highveld. But more than the 67-ball hundred against Deccan Chargers at Supersport Park in Centurion, it’s the boy in flip-flops that I remember, traipsing through the Sandton City Mall with a smile that had the full wattage of worry-free youth.

In The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Any place you love is the world to you.” In the summer of 2009 [winter in the southern hemisphere], Manish Pandey’s world was South Africa’s highveld. But more than the 67-ball hundred against Deccan Chargers at Supersport Park in Centurion, it’s the boy in flip-flops that I remember, traipsing through the Sandton City Mall with a smile that had the full wattage of worry-free youth.

Even the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) coach, the notoriously hard-to-please Ray Jennings, reckoned he was the next big thing. This, mind you, was a team that had Virat Kohli in its ranks. Under-19 World Cup-winning captain, Kohli had already played for India. Pandey had just a handful of Ranji Trophy matches to his name.

Before that evening at Centurion, Pandey had faced two balls in that season’s IPL, in Durban three weeks earlier. RCB saw him as one for the future, with Jennings especially wary of the Under-19 stars being exposed to too much, too soon. There were already question marks about Kohli and his fondness for the trappings of success.

Pandey, from an army family, was seen as the sorted one. Against a Chargers attack headlined by Ryan Harris and RP Singh, he batted as though touched by genius. There was power, there was placement, and a deftness of touch that only the truly gifted possess. Few would have guessed then that it would take him another six years to win the India cap, or that Kohli would leave him so far behind.

Nearly a decade on from that first IPL century by an Indian, it’s tempting to wonder where we lost that boy with the carefree smile. At Malahide, against a completely outclassed Ireland side, Pandey was the only Indian player who looked ill at ease, batting from memory, searching for a rhythm that just wasn’t there.

A 20-ball 21 is an abomination in the Twenty20 format. In an innings where your teammates have made a 36-ball 70, a 45-ball 69 and a nine-ball 32, it’s an ugly boil begging to be lanced. One four, miscue after miscue, ugly heaves…almost no sign of the batsman who so captivated Centurion.

Earlier this year, at the IPL auction in Bengaluru, Sunrisers Hyderabad shelled out 11 crores for his services. Four other teams made bids before Hyderabad sealed it. Interesting, one of the franchises not to look his way was Kolkata Knight Riders, where he spent the previous four seasons.

Their decision to burn bridges wasn’t surprising. Pandey may have won the 2014 final with a dazzling 50-ball 94, but the high notes were spaced too far apart in an insipid tune. Ironically, his best season in Kolkata was his last, when his 396 runs came at a strike-rate of 128.57.

With Hyderabad in the season just gone by, there were three half-centuries, but the strike-rate of 115.44 was dismal. For a team so heavily reliant on runs from Kane Williamson and Shikhar Dhawan, Pandey’s failure to grow into his role was a huge setback. Each time it looked like a corner had been turned, he would find a dead end. And another.

That he played the two games at Malahide, preferred to KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik in the first, was a big surprise. Over the years, his first-class record and performances in 50-over cricket have kept him in the selectors’ line of vision. But in the format where he first caught the eye, there has been little. Now nearly 29, he’s no longer one of the boys of summer either.

The gift of timing has deserted him. The harder he tries to mow the ball, the poorer the connection. From being a figure of hope to a symbol of social-media derision and outrage, the transformation has been painful to watch. It becomes acutely uncomfortable any time he’s at the crease with Kohli. Once equals, no longer inhabit the same batting planet. Everything about Kohli screams assurance and certainty. Pandey is the prodigal who lost his bearings, still wandering the desert.

How many more chances will India give him? Clearly, the team management, and Kohli, remember what he’s capable of. But these days, it’s not just Rahul and Karthik who are after his place in the XI. There’s Rishabh Pant, who bats like a Catherine Wheel, and Shubman Gill, whose poise recalls Pandey of 2009 vintage.

If he doesn’t find the sweet spot on his bat across the Irish Sea in England, that could well be it. For the sake of the boy with the happy-go-lucky smile, let’s hope he does. Few things in this world are as painful to witness as young potential denied its full expression.

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first published:June 30, 2018, 10:09 IST
last updated:July 06, 2018, 17:00 IST