Watch Ayaz Memon's preview of the ICC World T20 above, as he talks about the problems that the organisers have faced leading up to the event. Also, find out who he picks for the semi-finals from the two groups.
For as long as any Indian cricket aficionado can remember, MS Dhoni has had only one item at the top of his wish list — a pace-bowling all-rounder, one who could balance his five-pronged attack while linking up the top and middle order at the same time.
The five-bowler attack worked well in the 2015 ODI World Cup. But constant changes to fielding rules and losses to Bangladesh (away) and South Africa, as also the 0-2 defeat in T20Is against the Proteas in the same series meant that the search was intensified.
“There are no seaming all-rounders available,” Dhoni had rued, neglecting the likes of Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan for much of the ODI series in Australia. “There are no readymade players for international cricket. We need to groom them,” he had said after the duo failed to make an immediate impact when their chances did come.
Thereafter, amid the return of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, the recall of Ashish Nehra and Harbhajan Singh, Hardik Pandya’s selection for the T20Is Down Under provided a solution Dhoni had been pining for.
Considering his aforementioned statements, it was a surprise that Pandya made the playing XI immediately. Then came that nervy start at a packed Adelaide Oval, riddled with extras as the youngster struggled to find his rhythm against Steve Smith and Aaron Finch, giving away 19 runs. He returned later in the innings, picking up 2 wickets, finishing his spell and the game on a happier note.
“When it comes to international cricket, it is all about handling pressure. When you are given the ball and it is your first over, there is pressure. I knew he would do better in the second and third overs. (But) he is not someone who gives out a lot of expressions whether batting or bowling,” said Dhoni, of the youngster’s debut in Adelaide.
“At the same time he will have to be a lot more consistent with line and length because that will give me more confidence to consistently play him as the third seamer if the need arises,” the skipper had added.
There are two noteworthy points here. First, Dhoni’s mantra for team selection is to mend what is not broken. Thus, since January, India’s winning run of 10 in 11 T20Is has more or less seen the same playing XI. Simply put, Pandya was afforded several chances and he has grown in that time. The youngster has picked up 10 wickets in the 30.3 overs that he bowled in 11 matches so far, almost 3 overs per match.
The underlying point, though, is not in the number but the time period where Dhoni has used the all-rounder. Ashish Nehra and Jasprit Bumrah have been quite impressive up front and at the death; R Ashwin has been trusted with the new ball at times. Pandya, in between, has done the job in the middle overs.
In fact, the skipper hasn’t had to worry when one of his frontline pacers went for runs as, for instance, in the Melbourne T20I when he bowled both Nehra and Bumrah for the first six overs, thus saving the spinners for later. In Melbourne, Pandya returned 1-17 in his 2 overs, and while he was a touch expensive, it still allowed the spinners to do the job as they picked 3 wickets between them and turned the game on its head.
Using Pandya after the powerplays has also allowed Dhoni to hold Ravindra Jadeja back, bowling both spinners in tandem, or alternating their spells with the all-rounder.
Now combine this with the manner in which Dhoni employed Yuvraj and Raina — the duo bowled 21 overs in 11 matches at nearly 2 overs per match.
With these three accounting for approximately 5 overs per match since January, the Team India captain has been able to use his strike bowlers for shorter spells and at times when they can make the most impact.
Using Ashwin within the first six overs or holding the pacers back for the death, for example. It is no secret that Dhoni is at his best when he has loads of bowling options at his disposal.
And this is where the second point assumes significance. An all-rounder who can hurl the ball at 135-plus consistently and hit the big shots on order, Pandya is a rare find for Indian cricket. Therefore, the importance of him regaining confidence after a poor first over in Adelaide cannot be undermined.
It happens often on the international stage; remember KL Rahul’s horrific shot during his MCG debut a year earlier? This is where a youngster needs the skipper and team management to back him the most. Just as the Karnataka opener found his touch in Sydney immediately afterwards, in the same manner Pandya, too, found his groove, albeit in a much shorter time frame.
Happily enough, the all-rounder’s expressions over the course of the last seven weeks have given a peek into his persona. There is a smile ever present on his face, even though behind the helmet there is a resolute mind that wants to put the ball far over the fence. His raging T20 strike-rate is proof enough of that.
Pandya will gladly throw himself around on the field in pursuit of the ball, inspired perhaps by that buzz that comes as a result of the attention surrounding an Indian cricketer. This is someone who enjoys the limelight, and has enough antics up his sleeve to keep the cameras busy.
In the lead-up to the 2016 World T20, with the Men in Blue gaining momentum, Pandya’s arrival on the scene has not been played up. But make no mistake, the T20 format agrees with his style of play, and this tournament could well be his stepping-stone to greater things.