"Of course every cricketer who's playing wants to play for the country. But you can't let that affect you or consume you when you're in the act of bowling. If you try to put in extra effort keeping in mind that the selectors are watching and you have to impress them, then you won't bowl well. You should just bowl normally, because if you think of all that, you'll lose concentration while actually bowling. If you want to play for India, you need to first bowl the ball. Then if you do that well, you'll get to play."
Wise words those. But they didn't come from an experienced international cricketer, or even a veteran around the domestic circuit who has been there, done that. That was Ishwar Pandey, playing for Rest of India against Mumbai in the Irani Cup match in February 2013.
Pandey, who turned 24 on August 15, has put those words into practice. In the last Ranji season, he was the highest wicket-taker, with 48 scalps at 21.06 and a strike-rate of 43.46. And he capped the perfect birthday week by bowling India A to an innings and 13 runs win against South Africa A in Rustenburg, with match figures of 7 for 71, breaking partnerships at key moments in both innings and returning in the dying moments of the final day to take the final wicket and deliver victory.
Pandey had given a hint of things to come with a good - but not remarkable - domestic season in 2011-12. In the Madhya Pradesh side that Pandey was part of, TP Sudhindra was the strike-bowler. Then Sudhindra was caught in a television sting, and MP were left without their main weapon. "I didn't have an IPL contract then, so I was in the MRF Pace Bowling Academy (in Chennai) when the news first broke. I was a little shocked on hearing it because he hadn't seemed like the kind of guy who would do something like that."
Shock is the natural emotion when you see a teammate go down thus, but Pandey filled the gap left by Sudhindra's absence seamlessly, and then went one better. It started with a rain-marred Duleep Trophy final in October 2012, where Pandey, still a largely unknown quantity, impressed with his nip and bounce, even though Central Zone - his team - lost against East Zone on the basis of the first-innings lead. Pandey's bowling, however, "set a good tone for the season" as he described it. Sanjay Manjrekar, among others, came away with a favourable impression. "Duleep final hampered by rain.. whatever little cricket I saw found Ishwar Pandey, C.Z seamer quite impressive..needs good guidance," Manjrekar tweeted then.
The Duleep final was also the first time the selection committee under Sandeep Patil came together, and Pandey couldn't have chosen a better time to make a mark. In some ways, the timing of his rise was fortuitous, because Patil and his team have been very consistent as selectors, even while making bold calls. The bold calls are those that make the headlines, but sticking with players like Pandey, giving opportunities to those who have earned them, and ensuring that a player wasn't consigned to the 'forgotten' heap if he failed once, have been this committee's hallmarks.
Thus, when Pandey stormed the Ranji season, he was rewarded with a spot in the India A side that faced England ahead of their One-Day International series in India in the first week of January. He was part of a team that included Mohit Sharma and Parveez Rasool, each of whom had had stellar Ranji seasons. With the match against England taking place in Delhi, the selectors told Lalchand Rajput, the India A coach, to send these three over to the Feroz Shah Kotla, where the Indian team was preparing to take on Pakistan.
Pandey, Sharma and Rasool have, at different times, spoken of how it impacted them, bowling to international stars and spending a day with the national team. A day's nets can't be worth that much in absolute terms, but the knowledge that the selectors had kept them in mind, had taken note of their performances, and they were being given chances to take the next step up must have been priceless.
Mohit has since made his international debut after a dream run in the Indian Premier League, and Rasool has also made a step-up with a berth in the India squad, even if he didn't get a game, for the Zimbabwe tour. Both Pandey and Rasool were part of the Pune Warriors India in the IPL and, inexplicably, weren't given a longer run, playing only two matches each for a franchise that lost a whole lot more than it won and continued to make changes to the playing XI.
The tall (6 feet 2 inches) and strapping Pandey, looks like he might well be a 140-clicks bowler, but he admits that he's only at about "130 kph" at present. "I'm trying to increase my pace. I want to have an average of 135 kph from my current 130 kph. At higher levels, you need pace. If you bowl at 125 kph or so, you can get by with the new ball, but you won't be as effective with the old ball. You need to be 135."
Not that it has held him back any. In other ways too, Pandey doesn't fit the archetypal image of a big, snarling fast bowler - "Many people have told me to show some aggression. I try to, but it's not natural to me. And what aggression can you show to a Sachin Tendulkar... He's been playing from since I was born!"
Pandey came into mainstream cricket almost by accident, rapidly graduating from bowling with tennis balls in street cricket to leather balls in first-class cricket. He attended a local cricket trial for the Rewa District team in MP, was spotted by Aril Anthony, who remains his coach, and was convinced to give serious cricket a shot. Anthony undertook the onerous task of bringing Pandey's father around. "Dad wanted me to concentrate on studies," smiles Pandey.
There have been a couple of lows since then, including a heart-breaking seven-run loss against Mumbai in the league phase of the Ranji Trophy, where Pandey was the last man out for 24 off 14 balls, and an IPL debut where he "walked into one man's den" in the words of Allan Donald, with Chris Gayle smashing every Pune bowler on his way to a world record 175 not out.
But the highs have outweighed the lows. His bowling for a strong India A side against a South Africa A team that didn't have the same quantum of big-name players may be a sign of things to come or not, but it showed that he's capable of stepping up his game in foreign climes and conditions. And with the selectors having shown that performances will not be forgotten, Pandey has a world of opportunities waiting if he can grab them.
Though 'grab' might not be the most apt word. As Pandey says, "Taking wickets is not in my hand, but bowling well is. So that's what I try to do."