Something odd happened in the first ODI at Dambulla. After Virat Kohli won the toss and opted to field first, he handed the new ball to Hardik Pandya along with Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Jasprit Bumrah then came to bowl first change.
At first sight, it doesn’t seem that much of an oddity, given that Pandya has opened the bowling before in his short ODI career. It is just that he has not done it consistently enough, and certainly off late, he has not been handed the new ball regularly. Not once during the Champions Trophy did he open the bowling, and even in the ensuing West Indies’ series, he only came on to bowl at first or second change at best.
In fact, this was only the third time under Kohli’s captaincy that Pandya had opened the bowling in an ODI. The first two instances were Pune and Kolkata against England in January. If we look further back to his first four ODIs – played under MS Dhoni against New Zealand in October 2016 – Pandya opened the bowling three out of four times. In all then, he has opened the bowling six times in 18 ODIs that he has played so far.
Here is another fact, something of far greater value – Pandya has been called upon to bowl in 17 out of 18 ODIs that he has played, and he has completed his quota of 10 overs on only four occasions. Of course, there are different decisions at play here, such as spin-friendly conditions and slower wickets at home and in the West Indies.
It is easier to bowl a full quota when you are opening the bowling, so let us zoom in, again. When he has opened the bowling, Pandya has bowled 9 overs on two occasions – at Delhi versus New Zealand and at Pune versus England. On a further two occasions, he has completed 10 overs – at Kolkata versus England and at the Oval versus South Africa. We can give him the benefit of doubt on two other occasions – on debut at Dharamsala versus New Zealand and Dambulla versus Sri Lanka when the opposition folded easily and there was no opportunity to complete his overs.
Even so, taking all of that into account, that statistic – bowling full 10 overs in only 4 out of 17 ODIs he has bowled in – is shocking, whichever way you look at it. All the more for an all-rounder who is now readily considered a fifth full-time bowler in the Indian attack.
“More than the team management, Hardik wants to be able to bowl those 10 overs. And he does understand the need to bowl those overs and complete his spells, which is why he is working harder and trying out different things,” said India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun.
Arun’s influence on the bowling pack cannot be denied here. In fact the entire support staff – starting from coach Ravi Shastri – has looked to make immediate impact from day one of their ‘new’ charge. Coming back to Arun and Pandya though, the second Test at the SSC in Colombo stands out. Pandya’s role as the all-rounder in the recently concluded Test series was a limited one, owing to conditions at hand. But he was able to make decent impact with the ball in hand, particularly in that second Test when he broke the frustrating partnership between Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis. Pandya had used an off-cutter to get rid of Mendis late on day three to finally break the Lankan resistance.
It was Arun who had guided Pandya about this variation in his bowling, and helped him hone this skill in keeping with the conditions prevalent in Sri Lanka once it was decided in Galle that India would be playing a five-pronged attack. Given the influence of full-time bowlers, Pandya’s role was always going to be a fill-in, restrictive one. As such, this relationship between Arun and Pandya can be described as ‘limited bowling, maximum impact’. The other description can be to look ahead and ask the coach just when he will be able to help Pandya finish his quota of overs in ODI cricket, for that too is a pressing need for the team at the moment.
“It depends on what the bowler is capable of doing. Not only their actions but also what is easier for them to do. So it is my job to understand that and give them the right feedback. Each bowler takes a little while to be able to do that in a match, you need to put in some hours of practice and you need to perfect that in practice before you are able to put that skill in the match,” Arun said, when asked about the possible timeframe wherein Pandya can become a full bowler for India.
This is the underlying point. The Men in Blue have begun an earnest preparation for the 2019 ODI World Cup, but as the first ODI in Dambulla showed, they are already hampered to a certain extent. At one stage, Sri Lanka were placed at 139/1, and India relied on Kedar Jadhav to come in and bowl ahead of Axar Patel.
This dependency on Jadhav to bowl a few overs helps ration out the need to have your main bowlers complete their quotas. It is a buffer, lest one of them gets hit out of the park, nothing more. Most of all, it is not a reliable ploy, particularly in non-sub-continental conditions which India will encounter throughout 2018 and for much of 2019.
In summation then, India need Pandya the bowler to step up quickly, to graduate from ‘giving us 7-8 overs’ as Kohli puts it, and complete his full quota. Or, India must start looking at five full-time bowling options plus Pandya in their playing eleven.