Hunt Over for Next Yuvi?

yuvraj Singh

Manish Pandey has shown he can be Yuvraj Singh’s replacement in middle order


India went into the fourth ODI against Sri Lanka at Colombo without having to worry about having to win the series. That was already done a few days prior. That too without having to break much of a sweat. All that the team management had in its mind was experimentation and testing in preparation for the mother of all tournaments two years down the line — the World Cup. And guess what? They struck gold.

Manish Pandey. The exceptionally talented batsman, who made a stout ODI debut (which was also his India debut) against Zimbabwe in 2015, and three matches later played an absolute blinder against world champions Australia in their own backyard, under pressure and chasing a humongous total. After some time in the wilderness, having lost his place in the team due to an injury suffered during the Indian Premier League (IPL), Pandey is back. And back with a bang!

After getting off to a flyer, thanks to Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli against Sri Lanka at the R Premadasa Stadium, and with a 400-plus score looking very much on the cards, India suffered a deceleration in the middle overs, when Hardik Pandya and Rohit got out and KL Rahul followed soon. Pandey, who was playing his first ODI in 10 months, had a job on his hands. He was joined by the peerless Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the middle and the task was to take India’s innings to the culmination that the start deserved, thereby batting Sri Lanka out of the game. Pandey had a personal battle to win as well — that to make his way into the reckoning of the selectors.

And by the time the match got over, he had not only made his way, but stormed back into the selector’s scheme of things. His 42-ball 50 coming in at No 6 was an innings of sheer character and spoke of the quality of his batsmanship. It was exactly the innings that was required at that stage, and together with Dhoni, Pandey catapulted India to a massive 375/5 in their 50 overs. Job done!

However, this triumphant return has a back-story. It wasn’t achieved without its share of trials and tribulations. In the glow of the knock, one must not forget the frustrations of a man, who first lost his place in the starting XI, and then, injury forced him out of the Champions Trophy when he seemed to be in reasonably good form.

“It is disappointing for sure to miss a tournament like the Champions Trophy but injuries are part and parcel of the game,” Pandey said after missing the showpiece ICC event, even after being named in the squad, on the back of a successful IPL.

Indeed the IPL was a redeemer of sorts for Pandey, after his stock started to go down after a horrendous series against New Zealand in October last year. In that series, Pandey could merely score 17, 19, 28 (not out), 12 and 0, and after an equally unimpressive outing in the T20 series against England early this year, Pandey seemed to be going the way of a Manoj Tiwary, whose India career never took off despite the truckload of potential that he possessed. It became all the more difficult for Pandey because there were a host of players who could fit into the Indian middle order, which Pandey had staked a claim for.

Pandey was not played in the one-dayers against England, though he was a part of the squad. In the meantime, Kedar Jadhav went ahead and played two brilliant innings, at Pune and Kolkata. Pandya had a reasonable series with the bat too, and what worked for both Jadhav and Pandya was that that they could turn their arms over when called upon to do so, to good effect. And there were, of course, the veterans and tried and tested performers Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni, who had rolled back the years and come up with two breathtaking knocks in the second ODI of that series. The England ODI series, therefore, put Pandey on the waiting list for a place in the cramped Indian middle order.

Add to the aforementioned list of names, that of Ajinkya Rahane, and those of the robust ‘reserves’ — Dinesh Karthik, Karun Nair, Ambati Rayudu and Shreyas Iyer — and the competition became even stiffer; it has been so for quite some time now, with the talent supply line going on the overdrive. Pandey was seen to be steadily losing ground.

What could go in Pandey’s favour is that one of the biggest names in the Indian middle order, Yuvraj, is not the player he used to be, who struck fear in the hearts of the bowlers. The last two innings of note that the southpaw played for India was the 32-ball 53 versus Pakistan in the Champions Trophy and the 150 against England way back in January, and nothing else worthwhile.

Yuvraj also looked to have lost his sharpness on the field and failed an endurance test at the National Cricket Academy (NCA). He was dropped from the squad to Sri Lanka and though chief selector MSK Prasad sought to play down the fears, the truth is that Yuvraj, who is not getting any younger, would find it extremely tough to fight his way back into India’s World Cup squad.

Whom do the selectors have, for replacing Yuvraj in the crucial No 4/No 5 position? Rahul has been projected in that role, but has looked terribly out of place in the middle order. Rahul is normally an opener, who has scored almost all his runs in ODIs as an opener, and his relocation to the middle order doesn’t seem to have served any purpose.

Another candidate for the middle order in the build-up to the World Cup could have been Suresh Raina, who used to be an integral part of Indian limited overs sides not too long ago, but seems to have fallen completely out of favour with the selectors.

Rahane, however, can easily fit into that position, who is suited to the game in the middle overs, where one has to essentially milk the bowling, accumulating ones and twos and collecting boundaries when they are on offer, before accelerating in the slog overs. Rahane was in sublime touch during the tour of the Caribbean in June-July, scoring four consecutive fifties and converting one of them into a hundred.

Pandey’s fight, therefore, is essentially with Rahane for filling in Yuvraj’s position in the batting order. Both are fantastic fielders, apart from being able batsmen, and their fight can really go down to the wire. Pandey needs to be on his toes and grab every opportunity that comes his way, as he has been doing lately.