'Mentally fresh' Manish Pandey ready to reclaim ODI spot

Manish Pandey punches down the ground Associated Press

Chants of "Rahul Dravid ki jai (may victory be with Rahul Dravid)" echoed around Alur for every lap the India A (in this case India B coach) walked around the ground, for over 90 minutes after the match began. The 300-odd fans implored Dravid to wave in their direction, and when he did, it felt like victory to them. Once Dravid was done, the focus shifted to Manish Pandey, another Bengaluru boy. It remained that way for most parts of India B's innings, and he didn't disappoint them.

With Pandey, the crowd took a little more liberty, often giving him instructions when he erred. They told him not to take risky singles when he tried to steal ones under the fielders' nose at short cover, asked him to focus when he played the occasional loose shot, and begged him hit sixes towards the end of the innings. For the rest of the day, he was their hero.

Pandey ignored all the chatter, not once looking in the crowd's direction while he carefully reconstructed India B's innings. But as he turned for the second run to bring up his seventh List A century, he immediately turned left, and waved his bat towards the fans, broke into a grin, raised both his arms, giving everyone enough time to snap away with their cameraphones. Pandey was happy, the fans were happy, and it was business as usual.

On Monday, he picked up 56 singles and hit seven fours and three sixes. There were only two occasions when he faced more than three dot balls in a row. Two of his sixes sailed over deep midwicket, but the one that stood out was an inside-out hit over extra-cover off Mitchell Swepson, the legspinner. He brought up his century off just 97 deliveries, and then carried on to finish unbeaten on 117. This, in addition to unbeaten scores of 95 and 21, took his tournament tally to 233 runs without being dismissed. With India's next ODI assignment - the Asia Cup - slated for September, Pandey couldn't have timed his surge any better.

It has also come at a time when his rivals for middle-order berths in India's ODI squad are dealing with issues of form or fitness.

Suresh Raina had a poor tour of England. Dinesh Karthik has battled poor form, albeit in the Tests. Kedar Jadhav is coming back from a four-month layoff spent recovering from a hamstring injury, and hasn't hit form yet. Jadhav's round-arm offspin gives him an extra dimension, but he hasn't bowled an over yet in two Quadrangular games, possibly because he isn't fully ready yet. Shreyas Iyer, who's also playing the Quadrangular, has made scores of 4, 20 and 7 so far.

All this could work to the advantage of the in-form Pandey.

"Personally, I just think about batting. I'm looking at the middle order at the moment, trying to seal that position," Pandey said. "This series was a proving ground to get some runs and get looked at for the Asia Cup. I want to enjoy myself, there is competition, but I want to focus on what I do best."

Pandey didn't feature in the limited-overs series in England. Two T20Is in Ireland was the only cricket he played for three weeks on that tour. Pandey admits to have fallen into a rut of sorts during the time. "I wasn't feeling good, so I took a three-week break after the UK tour," he said. "I wanted to switch off, took time off the game, and then used the time to focus on a couple of niggles and get myself mentally fresh. That seems to have helped."

Before that, Pandey had endured a difficult IPL, moving from Kolkata Knight Riders to Sunrisers Hyderabad, for whom he scored 284 runs at a strike rate of 115.44. According to ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, contextual numbers that take match situations and phases into account, his Smart Strike Rate of 100.71 was the second-worst this season among all batsmen who had faced a minimum of 120 balls.

Pandey put this down to trying a little too hard at times, when he may have been better off batting with an uncluttered mind.

"I think it's never easy batting lower down the order with few overs remaining in T20s," he said. "But you have to be ready for the chances because you wait for so long. The more games I play in that situation, it will help me prepare for tough situations. There are always learnings you try and take out of such situations. That's what I also did.

"In the IPL, I struggled, yes. I wasn't reacting to situations like I normally do, maybe that's also because I was batting lower down. At KKR, I had a set role in the top three. Batting elsewhere made it tougher for me, but I can't offer excuses. I have to accept the reality as it is and try and work my game around these tough situations."

In limited-overs cricket, Pandey's innings often follow a pattern - he can start slowly at times, but once set he's as dangerous and unorthodox as they come, capable of flat-batting bowlers tennis-style, playing his trademark short-arm jabs off the front foot and glides behind point. Batting at No. 4 - as he has done for India A - suits him well, since it gives him time to settle in before needing to play the big shots.

He had time to settle in when he made his maiden ODI ton in Sydney in 2016, but he's not always had that luxury in the India side. He's moved up and down the order, oscillating anywhere between No. 4 and No. 7 from one match to another. But that's not entirely within his control. He's just happy to be in form and in a good place mentally.

"I'm in a better frame of mind now, sometimes a break does that to you," Pandey said. "Runs made for India A count, and getting big runs here is a boost for me ahead of a big season. I have done it in the past as well, so there's definitely no doubting my own ability. It's about being in a good head-space and I think that's what I've worked on doing.

"When there is a lot of competition, every opportunity counts. I have worked out my game well, and I'm looking forward to continuing this form."