Fit-again Manish Pandey eager to 'make a mark'
A Sydney bonhomie for a visiting Indian cricket team isn't as commonplace as most of us think. For all the Tendulkar and Laxman heroics that have remained etched in our memories, India have suffered their fair share of losses at the venue.
And yet, there's a lot of history between India and the SCG - only the Adelaide Oval can come close in terms of historical achievements, and that too just during the Virat Kohli era. Which is why every time India play there, especially against Australia, there are hopes of a repeat of the 2008 rebellion.
This writer was 12 years old in 2004 when Yuvraj Singh's 139 had set the trend. And in the eyes of a 24-year-old in 2016, Manish Pandey's 104* made a mark like no other. It gave India the final bragging rights at one of the most celebrated venues in the history of the sport, which also hosted one of the most uncelebrated India-Australia Tests in 2008.
Cricket, however, or any sport for that matter, prospers on competition -- the India-Sri Lanka Tests of the day bear testimony to that -- and not on bragging rights. For bragging rights are temporary.
Hence, to an extent, scores of 4*, 17, 19, 28*, 12 and 0 in the six innings that followed the Sydney bravado erased the mark that Pandey had made on the impermeable walls of the Indian middle order. This, after all, was a middle order that was either flush with legends of yore or was splashed with youngsters more in number than the matches scheduled for them to play.
Amid those failures, there was the Karnataka Premier League that provided some respite. He scored one fifty and averaged 34.25 in the five innings that he played, helping the Mysuru Warriors reach the semifinals.
This season, Pandey has been picked by the Belagavi Panthers, and it's natural for him to be excited for the tournament.
"KPL feels exciting and fresh"
India will be capping their Sri Lanka tour on September 6 with the one-off T20I, after which Pandey should be left with a small window to play the KPL. 11 days will likely be the duration of that window, considering there are reports that suggest the visiting Australia will play their first international fixture on September 17.
I spoke with Pandey on the sidelines of his photo-shoot with the Belagavi Panthers, and he stressed on the freshness factor of the tournament. "KPL is really exciting, even for me. Even though I have played it for so many years, it still feels exciting and fresh. I will be playing for a different team this time, so that would be a new experience for me," Pandey said of the upcoming season.
Pandey was bought for INR 1.6 lakh by the Panthers this season. It was only a nominal rise of 1 lakh from his base price of 60,000, probably because the owners had the batsman's India commitments on the mind during the auctions. Nevertheless, his availability for the games would be among the most sought after.
Will his team miss him while he's busy with his international commitments?
"I don't know about the team missing me, but I will be missing the team for sure. At the same time, it's national duty and I cannot really escape it. I think we have big names in the team who have been playing cricket for a long time and know what's the best for the team," Pandey said in reply.
The likes of Sreenath Aravind and Stuart Binny will bring plenty of IPL experience to the table, and the Panthers would be banking on their contributions during the time Pandey is away.
"Let the tournament start, and whenever I can, I'll come and play for the team and try and make a difference there," Pandey said.
Want to make a mark on the Indian team: Pandey
While Pandey has been making a big difference to his KPL teams, that hasn't always been the case with the national side.
Even as India continued their streak of reaching the knockouts of major ICC tournaments by making it to the final of the Champions Trophy 2017, Pandey was forced to watch from the sidelines. A side strain meant he was replaced by Dinesh Karthik after being initially picked in the 15-man squad.
Now that he's been picked ahead of Karthik for the Sri Lanka ODIs, he is in line to play his first 50-over match in 11 months.
The 27-year-old hasn't played an ODI since the fifth one of the 2016 series against New Zealand in Visakhapatnam. In the time that has passed, India have played 13 ODIs; Pandey has played a total of 12 in his entire career. That's a rather small number given that he made his debut in 2015, something he was quick to point out.
"Coming back from the injuries I wanted to spend as much time at the crease as I could because I have missed major tournaments like the Champions Trophy and the West Indies series," he said.
Knocks of 55, 41*, 86*, 93* and 32* in the triangular 'A' series in South Africa gave the 27-year-old what he so earnestly desired: time at the wicket. It also helped him claim back his spot in the Indian side, something he was yet to find out at the time of this conversation.
"Not keeping that (missing the Champions Trophy) in the mind though, but it is good to spend some time at the wicket," Pandey said.
"The South Africa tour was nice, I think. I would like to stick to the same role as I had been doing there. I'll try to bat along with the same pace and hope that Sri Lanka ends well and that I make a mark on the team," he added.
It is heartening to see the way Pandey is hungry to 'make a mark' as that was what he had been trying to do with the limited opportunities that he had got. If he didn't have that hunger, the long rope that he has been given by the selectors would, by now, be close to reaching its other end.
This hunger comes on the back of a haul of 396 runs from 14 IPL games with the Kolkata Knight Riders at 49.50, which would have held him in good stead for his maiden ICC tournament. And now, with Sri Lanka being in the state that they are, there couldn't have been a better opportunity for a body that has only just rejuvenated itself.
"The body's okay. We keep hitting the gym, we keep training for the bigger tournaments and matches. So it's been good, I try to keep myself fit. Injuries are unfortunate, but I am getting myself back on track. Australia was good, South Africa was good, and I'm hoping for the best in Sri Lanka," Pandey said about the injury that he'd probably do anything to keep away from.
The Karnataka batsman last played an ODI in October 2016. With the 10-month-long wait finally coming to an end, he could make use of all the patience that he'd had to foster during his time off. Pandey would be itching to walk the talk and make a mark on the team once again.