“I want to be the Jacques Kallis of India.”
After his international debut for India a year back, an excited and enthusiastic Hardik Pandya had expressed his desire to be just like the legendary South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis. Notably, none of the Indian players had been able to fill the big boots of the India's own, Kapil Dev, ever since he retired over two decades ago. Hence, matching the class and charisma of a player like Kallis seemed to be a difficult task for the Indian players as well.
So it wasn’t surprising when the world laughed at Hardik’s desire to emulate the success of Kallis. Despite his promise being evident from very early on, fans believed that his was one of those instances where the initial spark would be extinguished soon. After all, there had been previous cases like Ajit Agarkar and Irfan Pathan, who had shown immense potential initially but one aspect of their all-round capability faded away as their careers progressed.
When Hardik arrived on the big stage, he lacked the temperament and maturity needed. Bowling just seemed to be a add on while batting always had been his main strength. However, sometimes he appeared to be too flashy with his batting as well. The only reliable thing he had was his acrobatic fielding.
Things, however, looked completely different on 18 June — the day Pakistan trumped India in the final of the Champions Trophy. Hardik’s scintillating all-round performance was the only silver lining for India on a night shrouded by dark clouds. Bowling first, he was surprisingly one of the rare bowlers for India who had a decent game even as the other Indians kept leaking runs. Hardik ended up with figures of 53-1.
With a target of 339 staring at them, India had lost all hopes after being reduced to 72/6. It was Hardik who revived hopes with a blistering knock. The 23-year-old smashed his way to 76 off 43 deliveries, in a knock which included four boundaries and six humungous sixes. However, his innings came to an unfortunate end with a run out. Who knows, maybe he could have single-handedly taken India over the line if that run out had not happened. However, even as he walked away with dejection writ large over his face, he had earned the respect of the fans.
Cut to 2 July when India played the Windies in the 4th ODI of their Caribbean tour.
Hardik was again at his best with the ball, with his impressive figures of 3/40 restricting the Windies to a paltry total of 189/9. Moreover, he had contributed a run-a-ball 20 with the bat on a sluggish pitch where the other batsmen had struggled to score. His dismissal turned out to be the turning point as it seemed like it was only him who could manage those runs. India went on to lose the match by 11 runs. He recorded bowling figures of 32 for 2 in six overs and 32 for 0 in nine overs in the previous couple of matches as well. Although, it came against the World No 9 Windies, it showed his improvement with the ball.
It is not that Hardik has performed only against lower ranked sides. He had also proven his worth against giants like England earlier this year when a quickfire 40 drove India home in a high-scoring thriller at Pune. Moreover, he conceded only 46 runs in his nine overs and claimed two wickets even in the face of an onslaught from the English batsmen, who notched up a total of 350 runs. The aggressive all-rounder repeated something similar in the third ODI of the same series at Kolkata with bowling figures of 3 for 49 and a contribution of 56 off 43 balls. These performances proved that he was finally transforming into a dependable all-rounder.
Although, the Mumbai Indians have not handed him the ball too frequently in the Indian Premier League, his batting has made waves. He has been a vital cog of the franchise over the last three editions of the IPL. Moreover, he has the rare ability of striking big from the first ball of the innings itself. That makes him an absolute asset for a limited overs squad. This rare ability came to the fore in his debut IPL season itself. However, he started doing it on a consistent basis since the series against England earlier this year.
You can still have your doubts about his bowling, which is pretty one-dimensional at the moment. Moreover, he has an affinity towards the short-pitched stuff. Hardik’s tendency to bowl length deliveries, even in the death overs, is the reason why he ends up being expensive most of the times. The need of the hour is consistency with the fuller deliveries and some new variations to his bowling arsenal.
The good news is he has begun working on his variations. He has been implementing a lot of slower balls since the Champions Trophy campaign and his stock is only improving as has been visible during the ongoing Caribbean tour as well.
No one can deny that he is not the complete all-rounder that India is looking for at the moment. However, he is certainly one for the future. He has the ability to represent India regularly in Tests as well. But if that happens, his workload will increase. India need to manage that carefully.
Kapil and Kallis were special players. So is Hardik! His abilities make him India’s best bet as a seam bowling all-rounder at the moment. Who knows whether he will be able to emulate the success of Kallis. But he is certainly the kind of all-rounder India need, and more importantly, deserve. However, he can still create his own legacy so that the players in the coming generation can say, “I want to be the Hardik Pandya of…”