Sheer passion and fierceness. These are the characteristics that define Hardik Pandya, who exudes exuberance. After going through thick and thin in his career, the eagerly-awaited chance for his Test debut has finally arrived. The lanky lad's rockstar-like gait has been engraved in everyone's mind since his early playing days in Baroda.
In recent times, Hardik's meteoric rise was labelled as the making of the new 'Kapil Dev'. Of course, there is no denying that the Indian cricket dressing room has been in search of an eminent character like Dev, but Hardik has a long way to go. He will taste the first dose of Test cricket on 23 February in Pune against Steve Smith's Australia. The street-smart youngster's story is nothing short of an adventurous book.
He wrote the first chapter of his career after smashing 82 off 57 balls against Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2014. Thereafter, he showed dominant performances to become a regular in their side. Not only did Hardik's impressive showing earn him a place in Baroda's Ranji team but he was also brought at a base price of Rs 10 lakh by the Nita Ambani-owned Mumbai Indians' outfit in 2015.
After exceeding expectations for MI as an all-rounder and guiding them to the Indian Premier League (IPL) title in 2015, the 23-year-old was selected for the three-match T20I series against Australia in January 2016. He managed to take just three wickets and conceded 78 runs overall in the series. This was followed by a slump in his bowling as he endured a tough time against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and it continued in the ICC World T20 at home. The all-rounder had a bland IPL post the World Cup, which led to his omission from the Indian team for the tour of Zimbabwe in June.
But amidst all the anguish, Hardik fought back and worked hard to eventually see his name in the one-day international team list against New Zealand in October 2016. And, he did not disappoint. The all-rounder picked up three wickets along with the Man-of-the-Match award on his ODI debut.
Hardik was soon called for the Test series against England in November 2016, which meant that after T20I and ODI debuts, the stage will be set for his first step in Tests. Before the series, Hardik had only played 16 First-Class matches, scoring 727 runs at 27.96 with a best of 90 and 22 wickets at 33.72, with a solitary five-wicket haul. But his Test debut had to wait. Unfortunately, he sustained a hairline fracture on his right shoulder in Mohali during nets in November and was released from the Test squad against England. He was forced to take a six-week layoff where he managed to get his act together and brush aside the 'injury-prone' tag.
A fit-again Hardik had been selected again for the ODI series against England – where he bounced back with two wickets and an unbeaten 40 to help India to a win in the first match. He is one of the bowlers who has an expressive and bold approach on the field. His animated celebrations and a tinge of Carribean style add to his personality as a bowler. But he comes from a humble background. Former Indian cricketer Kiran More trained the Pandya brothers and did not charge any fee for first three years in his cricket academy in Baroda. Also, during his starting days, Hardik had to borrow a bat from teammate Irfan Pathan to play in the Vijay Hazare Trophy of 2014.
The turning point for Hardik was during India A’s tour of Australia in 2016 under Rahul Dravid’s guidance – playing a quadrangular ODI series and two unofficial Tests with Australia A. The youngster showed signs of major development in his execution Down Under.
"One thing which I learned from Rahul sir (Dravid) in Australia is that cricket is all about situations. You need to play according to the situation. If your team is on 45/5 and you go in to bat saying that I'm going to play my natural game and then get out, you are someone really stupid," he said.
He is now in a team that comprises of champions and Hardik idolises his captain. “I haven’t done anything specific to increase my speeds. I have changed some habits; I sleep early, eat quality food, sometimes boiled food, train well to get stronger and fitter. Virat Kohli has set a great example and I try to follow him,” he explained.
Looking at his improvement as an all-rounder in the last few months, selectors wasted no time to name him as the captain of India A team which played a three-day warm-up match against Australia in Mumbai. "We want to keep Hardik in the mix because he is someone who has the ability to become a good all-rounder even in the longer format," said Kumble when asked why Hardik was part of the team for the one-off Test against despite not featuring at all in the longer format.
"It's rare when someone can run in and bowl 140 kmph and bat in the lower middle order. He is not tested in the longer format but in future when we travel outside India, he will be someone we can probably look at," the 46-year-old former Indian captain said.
Ahead of the four-match series, the bowling all-rounder said it was an excellent opportunity for youngsters to impress selectors against Steve Smith's men. "It will be a good opportunity for all of us, especially me to perform and get the opportunity to play in the Test series, it will be a good opportunity for the youngsters as well, who are there to show what they have," Hardik told reporters.
The chances of his selection look slim as Indian pitches assist the spinners more than pacers. But, he might get a chance in the fourth Test in Dharmasala – where he also made his ODI debut. However, it will be interesting to see how the team makes use of him.
His inclusion offers captain Kohli an extra option for batting and bowling. His flamboyance could be exactly what is needed against the mighty Australians. Although, he needs to focus on maintaining his line and length and should be vigilant with his blade. It is evident that he relishes the challenge but one hopes that he executes his job well and strikes a balance in the squad.