He may be Indian cricket’s next shining star, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Manish Pandey won’t turn 20 till September. The first person he called after the stunning century against the Deccan Chargers at Centurion on 21 May was his mother. Echoes there of the legendary American diver, Greg Louganis, who once said, “Whether I win or whether I lose, my mom will still love me.” Ray Jennings, the coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore, says “Manny’s like a son to me”. Pandey’s father, an army man with roots in Uttarakhand always reminds him that “money will come” and that he should never play with rewards in mind.
With such guidance, it’s not surprising that Pandey comes across as a remarkably well-adjusted and thoroughly pleasant young man. He can be shy and bashful, but there’s also an impish side to him. On the field, he says he’s “calm and aggressive”, and he laughs when he speaks of sledging bowlers and short-leg fielders.
Switch hit: Pandey was picked by the Royal Challengers after being dropped by the Mumbai Indians.
I remember walking past him down one of the vast corridors in the Sandton City shopping arcade in Johannesburg one night. The shops were closed and the place nearly deserted, and this young kid in flip-flops was walking back to the hotel, most probably after a visit to the nearby food court. No arrogant Marlon Samuels strut, no puffed-out chest or attitude, none of the warning signs that you can usually spot with those who achieve too much too soon.
A couple of days later, he destroyed the Chargers’ attack on his way to a thrilling, unbeaten 114. “He played about 50 shots in the first 30 runs, threw his bat at everything,” said television commentator Harsha Bhogle afterwards, but we agreed that the composure that he had subsequently shown marked him out as pretty special.
He followed that up with an even better innings, the 48 in the semi-final last Saturday. There were two gorgeous pushes through the covers early on, and a wonderfully adjusted tap through mid-off after Shadab Jakati had beaten him in flight.
I risked ridicule by asking him afterwards if he felt he had played even better than he had during the hundred. But even before the question was finished, he and Jennings were nodding their heads. “I was playing better strokes,” he said. “There were a few flaws in the hundred and I didn’t want to repeat those.”
Pandey was an anonymous part of the Mumbai Indians franchise last season and Jennings waited till the Indians failed to renew his contract before snapping him up in January. “I’ve known Manny for 18 months,” he said, harking back to the Under-19 World Cup, where Pandey waited till the final to make his mark. He made only 20 in a low-scoring game, but it was enough for Jennings, then coaching South Africa’s U-19s, to come over and say, “We lost because of you.”
After the semi-final victory, Jennings spoke with great warmth of Pandey’s batting and overall progress being the “real trophy”. A fortnight earlier, we had chatted about the U-19 players, and the difficulties involved in keeping them grounded. “They’re good boys really, with lots of talent,” Jennings had told me. “I just needed to sit them down and tell them that they had done nothing in the game. No one’s going to remember you for what you did as an Under-19.”
Pandey says he always wanted to be a cricketer. By the age of 9, he was part of Syed Kirmani’s academy in Bangalore, slamming a 40-ball century against a team from Mysore. His father’s itinerant lifestyle then took them to Nashik, where he played in the leagues for four years. Next came a spell in Rajasthan, and class X exams, a period when cricket receded into the background. It was only when the family returned to Bangalore and he signed up for the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s trials that his career started to take off.
After a poor first season with the Under-17s, he made three centuries in his second one. And though he was a fringe player in the U-19 World Cup triumph, there were enough glimpses to convince seasoned observers such as Jennings.
The fame and the attention will be his biggest test, but he insists that he’s capable of passing it. Having studied at Kendriya Vidyalaya—“not a rich kids school”—he says he’s learnt much from interacting with his idols. He watched Sachin Tendulkar at close quarters last season, and was in the same team as Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid this year.
More than any specific advice, he says it’s what he’s seen that’s made the biggest impact. “I’ve observed how they carry themselves, how passionate they are about cricket and the respect they have for the game,” he says. “I know some players have gone to another level in terms of attitude after a little success, but I’m not going to be like that.”
If he keeps his word, Indian cricket has something really special to look forward to.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo and Asian cricket correspondent for the Sunday Times and The Guardian.
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