With Manish Pandey, his intensity is made worse by those deep-set eyes. It is almost as if he is in a perpetual state of annoyance. While the look doesn’t necessarily reflect his mood on the day, on Friday (August 18) it did.
There was only a scowl for company as he sat distanced from the rest of the team at the training facility at the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium for nearly the duration of the three-hour session.
If he didn’t seem frustrated enough, the ebb-and-flow of the rain that forced the players to end their sessions and go back on a couple of times made it worse. When it was his turn to eventually bat, he put up a treat for Ravi Shastri (the head coach) and Sanjay Bangar (the batting/ assistant coach), mesmerising the coaching staff with an array of shots against quality bowling on a dicey wicket.
Despite the good session, a scowl was on not long after. Something was just not right. His tendency to joke around was altogether absent and he wasn’t laughing at or with his team-mates either. The only time he stepped out of this shell was during a brief conversation with Mahendra Singh Dhoni about his new bat (a fat-blade Gray-Nicolls), followed by a little banter with Raghavindraa, India’s designated throw-down man, in Kannada.
One can only assume why Pandey is in this place at this moment, but one reason could be that his place in India’s playing eleven is once again in question. Ahead of the first of five One-Day Internationals between India and Sri Lanka, starting with the first game on August 20, it’s likely that Pandey won’t feature with Kedar Jadhav possibly starting ahead because of the middle-order batsman’s ability to chip in with the ball.
Then there’s the other matter of KL Rahul taking over the No. 4 spot. MSK Prasad, the Indian team’s chief selector, made it clear that Rahul will come in after Virat Kohli, the Indian skipper, and that forces Pandey down the order, if at all. By his own admission, it’s not a position he is comfortable with. In fact, he played down the order during India’s series against New Zealand in 2016, and his numbers of 17, 19, 28*, 12 and 0 go to show his inability to adapt to the position which requires risk-taking from ball one.
That does sound a lot like how Pandey goes about most of innings – a strike rate of 96.30 in 12 ODIs is as good a sign of his aggression – but in actuality he takes his time at the start before putting the long handle to great use.
“That’s where I bat, the middle-order,” said the Nainital-born, Bangalore-based player when asked about losing the No.4 slot. “That’s somewhere I have been batting for long time. But if the team thinks somebody else can do that role really well, KL has been batting really well in the Tests, I would love to see that happen. It does change the middle order a little bit but that’s just one or two changes. We agree with what the management has to say. We abide by that.”
Pandey has come in at four for most part of his successful, if not consistent, first-class career for Karnataka, and that’s possibly the reason for the time he has taken to outgrow the position.
“The game I played in Australia (104 not out), I batted No. 4, that’s where I normally bat, and that’s where I know how many overs I have to play. That’s where I have batted my entire career. Batting at No. 6 or No. 5 was a bit new for me during the New Zealand series.
“It took me some time to get used to that situation with only 15-odd overs left in the game. You can’t settle in from that position, you just need to go out and go at everything from ball one. I think I have adapted to that situation well.”
Pandey, at 27, doesn’t have a choice at this moment. Should the team need Pandey, he isn’t returning to his position unless of course Rahul moves up the order, and that can only happen if either Rohit Sharma or Shikhar Dhawan fail to perform or come up injured.
Instead of focusing on the permutations, Pandey should look at cementing his spot in the side at whichever position he gets. It does help that he, as the captain, guided India ‘A’ to a title triumph in the tri-nation series in South Africa with scores of 55, 41*, 86*, 93* and 32*.
These numbers, coming after being ruled out of the Champions Trophy 2017 and the five-match ODI series in the West Indies due to a side strain, were a relief.
“Honestly, I’ve waited a long time to come to the Indian side that I’m used to it now. IPL was going good for me – 10 games, about 400 runs (14 games 396 runs at an average of 49.50 for Kolkata Knight Riders) – and then I missed those crucial two games. But it’s part of the game, that’s what you do (wait for your opportunity) and I’ve played the waiting game really well so far and it’s okay for me. Whatever the management decides on the batting order, we would go with it,” said Pandey.
“It’s really tough. Sometimes, when you are not in form it doesn’t really hurt as much as when you’re doing well and suddenly get injured. But I think you take it in the stride and that’s the time when you get to learn what’s the weak part of your body and where you have to work.
“I had enough time, about six weeks, to work on myself and a couple of things I had to do. It was good for me in a way but, obviously a little disappointed about the time it happened but it’s always good to come back. I had a good India A series, the team did really well, so I’m pretty happy,” he explained.
Despite what many said after his IPL century in 2009, and continue to say, Pandey is no flash in the pan. He is the real deal and he could go on to serve Indian cricket for a long time to come. At least for that, he may want to wipe that grimace off his face.