At a time when the intelligence of batsmen is in the news, and not for the right reasons, Manoj Tiwary is a breath of fresh air. No commentator will ever suggest that Tiwary is not an intelligent or versatile batsman. Whether it is the longer format or the slam-bang version of the game, whether he is batting high up the order or in the lower middle, the 31-year-old from Bengal will find a way to adapt.

Take Sunday’s game between Tiwary’s Rising Pune Supergiant franchise and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League. Tiwary walked in with his team’s score at 129/5 at the end of the 17th over, after being asked to bat. It had been 127/2 five balls ago and would be 130/7 three balls later. He had walked in to bat in the middle of a spectacular collapse.

However, Tiwary hardly let the scoreboard pressure bother him. Off the second ball he faced, he pierced the gap on the off-side, driving Shane Watson for four. He would go on to hit Watson for two more fours and a glorious six straight down the ground, crashing into the sight screen, in the same over. Tiwary ended up with 27 off 11 balls and took his team’s total to 161/8. Coincidentally, Pune would go on to win the match by as many runs as Tiwary scored.

Reading the bowler

Always the thinking batsman, Tiwary said it’s all about reading the bowler’s mind. Sent in to bat as late as No 7, Tiwary did not have enough balls to play with, but had had enough time to observe how RCB were bowling and setting fields. He noticed how Shane Watson was not bowling to his field, which set up MS Dhoni’s wicket. He made sure he did not repeat the same mistake.

“I was observing from the dugout how [Watson] bowled to MS Dhoni,” he said in the post-match press conference. “[Watson] set up a field and bowled differently – he was bluffing. That paid dividends in the form of the wicket of MS. So, I was observing – the kind of field he placed, I knew he was going to bowl similar stuff [to me]. Once that bouncer [off the third ball of the over] went for a wide, I knew he was not going to bowl another bouncer. So, reading the bowler’s mind was important for me. He bowled in my areas, he missed his execution and I was up for it.”

Tiwary’s 27 off 11, at a strike rate of over 245, was far more crucial to his team’s cause than the four other scores of 25 and above in Pune’s batting card. Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Tripathi, Steve Smith and Dhoni all got more than 25, but the highest strike-rate among the four was 134.78. Coming in to bat late in the innings, Tiwary did not have the luxury to settle in. It was his 13-year first-class experience that came to the fore in the end.

Making use of experience

Tiwary is happy to play according to the situation, especially in T20 cricket. “Strike rate is obviously at the back of the mind,” he said. “This season, even in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, I had a plan of hitting at a very high strike rate because that’s a demand of this format. A player like me who has played so many years of first-class cricket, I normally try and execute whatever the situation demands… I have made up my mind that no matter what the situation is, my experience is there. If the situation demands to build a partnership, I’ll do that. But at the same time, I’ll play a few more aggressive shots if it’s the demand. That’s the plan I had even before coming into the IPL.”

Tiwary has not batted higher than No 5 in this IPL. At a time when the batting position of Dhoni is under so much debate, no one has bothered much about where Tiwary bats. He has been shuffled between Nos 5 and 7 by the RPS team management and has delivered each time. In the three matches that he has got to bat, Tiwary has returned with scores of 40 not out off 23, 31 off 27 and 27 off 11. All this in between the death of his father, and he chose to miss only one game when it happened.

Unfulfilled potential

It’s hard not to feel for Tiwary when you look at how his career has progressed. Following a breakthrough 2006-’07 Ranji Trophy season, in which he scored 796 runs at a Bradmanesque average of 99.50, the 20-year-old at the time was destined for great things.

Picked for India’s tour of Bangladesh following that season, it was a given that he would make his debut in Mirpur. However, he injured his shoulder severely during fielding practice and did not play for India till two years later, during an ODI series in Australia. He played just the one game in Australia and could score only two runs, unable to handle the pace of Brett Lee. His next international match came three years later during India’s 2011 tour of West Indies, which was another failure.

Things seemed to be taking a turn for the better later that year when he hit his maiden ODI century against West Indies in Chennai, but surprisingly found himself on the bench even after that. An odd appearance here and there was interspersed between several injuries. It was almost as if he was never destined to make it for India. He was destined to be Indian cricket’s what-if guy.

Shouldering expectations

Tiwary never lost hope and kept turning up for Bengal in the domestic circuit whenever he was free from injury. But he was never the prolific scorer, or someone who hit triple centuries for fun. He was the 700-runs-per-season player – dependable, but not headline-grabbing. Very soon, everyone forgot about him, or grew tired of waiting for him to break through, including the media. He was branded as injury plagued and someone who never grabbed opportunities. Tiwary has been countering all these expectations and the pressure to perform for quite some time.

“When I analyse my career so far, I find that every season is very important to me because somehow there are a lot of expectations out of me,” he said. “I can feel that. People want me to do well. Obviously there is pressure to perform. Every season people want me to score 1,000 runs, but they should understand that we play on challenging wickets. If a player makes 700-800 runs, you cannot make a judgement that he is not good at the higher level. I have now understood how to deal with the pressure. As individuals, we have to focus on our games, prepare accordingly. No matter what people say, you have to do your job and go about it. Not everyone will understand what kind of situations we go through in Ranji Trophy.”

Latest chance in the spotlight

Tiwary is playing the IPL after a season-long gap. Despite hitting the winning runs for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL 2012 final, he played in only a handful matches in 2013, 2014, and 2015. He was not picked in the IPL 2016 player auction. He was almost not picked in the 2017 auction, before Pune snapped him up at his base price of Rs 50 lakh in the third round. “I was not nervous, but was beginning to feel a bit low after being bypassed in the first two rounds,” he had admitted. “I felt I had done well this time by leading underdogs East Zone to the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 title. So, I tried to control my emotions and stayed cool.”

The IPL is widely regarded as a tournament players pick to get the chance to earn a quick buck. Not Tiwary. “I have always loved playing the game, money comes later,” he said, when asked if he had any regrets being picked at only his base price. “IPL is a big platform and I was more interested to get an opportunity to perform on that stage. I am happy to have got that chance.”

Tiwary is making the best of his latest chance of playing in the spotlight. He is RPS’ only consistent batsman so far, despite batting lower down the order. But in spite of his heroics against RCB, he was overlooked for the man-of-the-match award, which went to RPS’ star player worth Rs 14.5 crore, Ben Stokes, for his three wickets. Tiwary had to instead settle for the consolatory “Stylish player of the day” award.

At 31 years of age, an India cap seems a long way off for Manoj ‘What If’ Tiwary. It is unlikely to change even if he has a stellar IPL campaign. He is arguably not even the most famous Manoj Tiwary in the country – he shares his name with an actor-turned-politician who is currently an MP from the ruling party at the Centre.

But Manoj Tiwary, the cricketer, will keep trying.

Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to correct a factual error which said that Manoj Tiwary was not picked in the 2014 and 2015 IPL player auctions. He was in fact picked by Delhi Daredevils and played in a handful of matches for the team.