England series the last chance for Manish Pandey to nail down a spot in India's middle-order

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Pandey is no longer the free-flowing batsman that he once was.

As India get ready to battle England for white-ball supremacy, the form of a particular batsman will be under the scanner.

Manish Pandey, who at one point was hailed as the next big thing in Indian cricket, has become a shadow of the batsman who initially burst on to the scene in the 2009 edition of the IPL.

Then a free-flowing batsman with the gift of impeccable timing, Pandey could pack a punch with his shots. Now, almost nine years later, he barely resembles that batsman that set the stage alight as a 19-year-old.

While he has showed his prowess from time to time with innings like the 48-ball 79 that he struck in India’s tour of South Africa earlier this year, such knocks have been too few and too far in between.

With the 2019 ICC World Cup barely 12 months away, his already precarious spot in the India’s limited-overs setup is on the firing line. The 28-year-old has come off a middling IPL campaign for runners-up Sunrisers Hyderabad in which he scored 284 runs in 15 matches at an average of 25.81. More than his low returns in terms of runs, it is Pandey’s strike-rate which has been the cause of the biggest worry.

The right-handed batsman scored the 284 runs at a measly strike-rate of 115. Despite scoring three half-centuries in the recent IPL edition, Pandey’s inability to up the scoring rate and struggles to find the boundaries have stood out.

Pandey has played the occasional blinders.

Pandey has played the occasional blinders.

That shortcoming has been clearly visible in his recent outings for India too with the two-match T20 series against Ireland bringing further proof. In the second T20I at Dublin, Pandey struggled for timing and power in the death overs and could only muster a 20-ball 21 which contained just the one boundary.

That this knock came after KL Rahul and Suresh Raina had given India a blazing start was damning for Pandey. While he was struggling to put the boundaries away, Hardik Pandya came and smashed 32 runs off just nine deliveries to take India past the 200-run mark.

When Pandey was picked ahead of the in-form Dinesh Karthik in the first T20 against Ireland, the groans from Indian fans on social media were audible. Skipper Virat Kohli then stated that the middle-order will see some shuffling over the course of India’s limited-overs clashes in the UK this summer as he sought to try out different combinations in the lead up to the World Cup.

Pandey is competing against Karthik for the middle-order slot.

Pandey is competing against Karthik for the middle-order slot.

It is that one spot in the middle-order that India have failed to tie down for some time now. The likes of KL Rahul, Pandey and Karthik have all auditioned for that role in the past year or so but none has seemingly been able to nail down the spot. In Karthik’s case though, he performed the task to perfection when given the chance in the Nidahas T20 tri-series in Sri Lanka earlier this year.

Rahul, meanwhile, enjoyed a terrific IPL with Kings XI Punjab and has catapulted himself as a strong contender for a spot in India’s playing XI after a fine half-century against Ireland on his India return.

At the moment, Pandey still remains in contention to get that coveted spot in the World Cup squad judging by Kohli’s words and actions so far. But it can be safely said, that time is running out for the Nainital-born batsman. The T20 and ODI series against England will be make or break for him with younger contenders in the form of Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer knocking on the doors.

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Cheteshwar Pujara's overseas struggles will be under the scanner during India's tour of England

Ashish Peter 19/06/2018
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Pujara's overseas record does not make for pretty reading.

With the Afghanistan Test now done and dusted, the Indian team will focus on the upcoming tour of England where they are slated to play five Tests against the hosts.

The England tour will be the second big overseas ‘test’ for Virat Kohli’s men since climbing to the top of the ICC Test rankings. The side were beaten 2-1 in South Africa in a hard-fought three-match Test series earlier this year.

Expectations will be high when Kohli’s men land on English shores. While expectations will be high, the scrutiny will be intense as well.

One particular batsman who will be under the spotlight, apart from the skipper, is Cheteshwar Pujara. While the top-order batsman remains almost unshakable in subcontinent conditions, his performance overseas in the past few years has left plenty to be desired.

The Rajkot batsman was earmarked as a special Test talent early in his domestic career. When he did get his break at the Test level, it seemed that the side had finally found a replacement for Rahul Dravid. As he smashed a superb 153 in the second innings against South Africa at Johannesburg in 2013, it looked liked the Indian team had a new ‘wall’ to lean on.

However, Pujara has been unable to sustain that early promise overseas. The 30-year-old has registered three more overseas tons since but all of them have come against Sri Lanka in familiar subcontinent tracks.

Pujara had a dismal time in South Africa at the start of the year.

Pujara had a dismal time in South Africa at the start of the year.

While Pujara has a healthy average of over 50 after 58 Tests for India, his away record outside Asian conditions is dismal with an average of 27 in 20 Tests.

Ever since that mammoth 153 against South Africa, the right-hander struck just four fifties outside Asia. This includes a run of 17 Tests against the likes of New Zealand, England, Australia and South Africa.

In India’s last overseas tour against South Africa at the start of the year, Pujara had scores of 26, 4, 19, 50 and 1. These are hardly confidence-building knocks from the team’s No3 batsman.

When it comes to his record on English shores, the numbers make even more dreadful reading for Pujara. In the five-Test series in 2014, the right-hander scored 222 runs from 10 innings at an average of 22.2.

His last five Test innings in England – 2, 0, 17, 4 and 11 – make for more sorry reading and he does not inspire confidence on a long and grueling away tour.

Pujara did make the right move by signing up for a county stint with Yorkshire earlier this year. However, things haven’t gone according to plan there. While he did play some excellent knocks in the List A One-Day Cup, Pujara’s form in the first-class competition in England was horrendous. The batsman could only muster 100 runs in eight innings for the county heavyweights as he struggled to come to grips with the swinging Duke ball.

Pujara struggled in red-ball cricket for Yorkshire.

Pujara struggled in red-ball cricket for Yorkshire.

In Afghanistan’s inaugural Test in Bengaluru recently, Pujara was demoted to the No4 position in the batting order to make way for KL Rahul. There too, he struggled to impose himself on the Afghan bowlers despite Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay setting up the perfect platform for him to flourish.

Pujara looks a shadow of the batsman who was resisting the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in 2013. The England series could be make or break Pujara’s Test career. At the age of 30, another series of overseas failures could put a big question mark over his future in Tests and he could soon be labeled another ‘flat-track bully’.

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Time for Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed to lead by example after poor run of form

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Sarfraz Ahmed was disappointing with the bat in Ireland and England.

Sarfraz Ahmed and his relatively inexperienced Pakistan team won a lot of hearts with their display in the thumping win over England at Lord’s in the first Test.

The hosts ultimately squared up the two-match series with an innings win in Headingley. However, the visitors can take a lot of comfort from their performances over the course of the series against England and the one-off Test against Ireland.

While the performances of young Shadab Khan, pacers Mohammad Abbas and Hasan Ali were highly encouraging, those of the skipper himself left plenty to be desired.

2018 has not been the kindest to Sarfraz who started the year brightly with some excellent innings in the T20I series against New Zealand. It has been in the five-day format that the 31-year-old has been found wanting with some uninspiring performances on the tours of Ireland and England.

Sarfraz failed to fire with the bat in each and every match which included three Tests and three warm-up first-class matches. In eight innings, the right-hander managed to score only 88 runs at a measly average of 11.

More than the Pakistan skipper’s lack of runs, it has been the manner of some of his dismissals which has been the frustrating aspect of his batting. In the one-off Test against Ireland at Dublin, Sarfraz was guilty of throwing away his wicket against Stuart Thompson in the first innings with a careless glide straight into the hands of second slip during a crucial juncture of the match. He perished while attempting to play a pull shot off the same bowler in the second innings to give Ireland a sniff of a famous victory.

Safraz is bowled by James Anderson during the second Test.

Safraz is bowled by James Anderson during the second Test.

In the Lord’s win over England, the Pakistan captain once again threw away his wicket at a crucial stage with a baffling shot-selection. With the visitors four wickets down and Babar Azam retired hurt, Sarfraz was unable to resist the temptation of going for the hook and paid the price as he could only miscue a Mark Wood short-ball into the hands of fine-leg. The shake of disgust from coach Mickey Arthur in the dressing room as Sarfraz made his way back to the pavilion said it all.

The senior Pakistan man has been shown up with the bat by youngsters Shadab and Faheem Ashraf who are making their first baby-steps in Test cricket. The former went on to register three half-centuries in the three Tests while the latter too put in some promising displays with both bat and ball.

In a squad filled with fresh faces and high on inexperience, the seniors in the Pakistan side, including Sarfraz, need to step up their performances if they want to usher in a new era post the retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan.

As the tour of England and Ireland has shown, the Pakistan squad have all the makings of a great Test team. An excellent pace attack along with an exciting all-round spinner in Shadab has been backed by some encouraging batting displays from Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam and Haris Sohail.

It is time for Sarfraz to now lead by example if he wants to truly fill in the boots of Misbah and Co.

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