When the ongoing Indian Premier League season ends, Manish Pandey may just reflect on a season of what might have been had the tale moved from back to front.
Before his brisk 83 against Chennai Super Kings, he went through a series of low scores and almost put himself in danger of being dumped out of the Sunrisers Hyderabad playing XI.
Moreover, the 2016 winners looked helpless as their middle-order, on more than one occasion, failed to deliver the goods. Pandey’s struggles were symptomatic of the brittle makeup of the Hyderabad top-seven.
There was no hiding place on Thursday. No David Warner, no Jonny Bairstow and quite predictably, Mumbai Indians were sucking the life out of the contest in the middle-overs. Pandey held fort at one end and despite getting to a steely half-century, a defeat looked inevitable before Mohammad Nabi made a contest out of it.
There is no questioning the Karnataka batsman’s stroke-making prowess. Very little, though, was known about his ability to switch gears at the death. With a six required to tie the game – which witnessed some late drama at the Wankhede Stadium – Pandey dispatched a delivery pitched slightly full on leg stump by Hardik Pandya over the long on fence.
Just briefly, Hyderabad may have thought that fortunes were smiling on them while plotting an extraordinary jail-break, but pacer Jasprit Bumrah ensured that it wasn’t to be in the Super Over. As for the what-ifs bit, Pandey, as things stand, is one of the consistent performers in the league with three fifties in his last four games.
What if his heroics had come earlier in the season? Would he have stood a chance to bulldoze his way into the India’s squad for the World Cup? Having featured in a little over 50 limited-overs matches and being a natural fit in the troublesome No 4 position, what are the chances that Pandey’s name even featured in the conversation when the selectors gathered to pick the squad for UK?
The selectors may have made up their mind already. Teammate Vijay Shankar’s miserable run so far didn’t affect his chances. Even good scores from Pandey might have not broken doors down, quite similar to the fortunes of Rishabh Pant, who had tipped the scales in his favour with a couple breathtaking knocks.
The position conundrum
It was the dreaded No 4 position that gave Pandey problems too and he had paltry returns of 54 runs at 10.8 before the CSK game. Being promoted to one-down gave him a new lease of life. The spring was back in his step and opened his account by hitting a boundary of the first ball he faced on two of the last three games.
Was it his position in the batting order that pegged him back in the early stages of the tournament? Pandey’s recent past suggest otherwise. For much of his successful tenure with the Kolkata Knight Riders, he was deployed as the two-down batsman. Through his ability to seamlessly fit across positions in the middle-order, KKR built a two-time championship-winning team.
Batting positions have not stood in the way of Pandey’s domestic performances either. With Karnataka blessed with a strong top-order, the 29-year-old has been his side’s pick for three-down. Rewind the clock ten years back and his historic IPL hundred (becoming the first Indian batsman to get to a three-figure score in the event) came at a time he opened the innings for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Temperament and pacing one’s innings could be a factor too. At the start of the season, Pandey was seen labouring through the early phase of the innings. Atleast twice, he was dismissed trying to hit his way out of trouble after being bogged down at the crease. It could also be why Pandey has not shied away from going for a slog or two early in his innings to build momentum.
Despite falling out of favour in India colours, Pandey continued to score heavily over the past season. Having taken over captaincy duties mid-way through the Ranji Trophy, he guided Karnataka to the semi-finals. With 439 runs at 62.71, there were healthy returns with the bat too.
The domestic T20 tournament, Syed Mushtaq Ali, which concluded just days before the IPL saw him swat bowlers with disdain. Pandey smashed 331 runs at 66.20 and lifted the trophy as skipper.
Maybe Pandey is someone who thrives on shouldering responsibility. At KKR, the classy strokemaker was nearly irreplaceable and reserved some of his most consistent displays in the last season he played there (2017).
Maybe Pandey likes the ball coming onto the bat; all his fifties have come away from Hyderabad, where the pitch is two-paced and can sometimes be awkward for the batters to negotiate. During his KKR stint, he gorged on another batting haven – Eden Gardens.
With Warner and Bairstow out of the picture, Pandey has the opportunity to anchor the batting order. And he has already shown situation awareness and courage.
But Hyderabad’s chances of making through the playoffs, after their latest defeat, are not in their hands alone. It is much like Pandey’s predicament as he eyes a return into the Indian middle-order.