When the BCCI posted the Indian squad for the first two Tests of the England series on Twitter, there was a mighty surprise in store, for the last name on that list was a totally unexpected choice.
Not so long ago, the same player was called up for the ODI series against New Zealand – again unexpectedly – and went on to grab the Man of the Match award on his debut itself. From being picked for Rs 10 lakh in the Indian Premier League (IPL) to playing a pivotal part in helping Mumbai Indians win their second title last year, and finally to being selected in the Indian Test squad, Hardik Pandya has had a meteoric rise.
His Test call-up is an indication that he is the latest to be considered for the role of a seaming all-rounder, who can dominate in the same way that Kapil Dev used to. There has been a quest to find a player suitable for that role ever since Kapil retired 22 years ago, Manoj Prabhakar, Sanjay Bangar, Ajit Agarkar, Irfan Pathan, Stuart Binny were all tried, but Kapil's shoes were just too large to fill. Pandya has an uphill task to carry out, but it also gives him a massive opportunity.
Granted that Pandya's selection does raise eyebrows. Most players get selected after a consistent run in the domestic circuit. But the 23-year-old, who made his debut for Baroda in 2013, has played only 16 first class matches, scoring a modest 727 runs at 27.96 and taking 22 wickets at 33.72. His only five-wicket haul came in 2015 and he’s yet to score a century in first class cricket.
Though the stats don’t aid his cause, what helped him is India A’s tour of Australia earlier this year. The squad under Rahul Dravid’s guidance played a quadrangular ODI series and two unofficial Tests with Australia A. During the second Test at Brisbane, India A were struggling at 46/6 in their first innings when Pandya came out to bat. He stitched together a partnership of 78 for the seventh wicket with Jayant Yadav (another uncapped player in the Indian squad for the Test series against England), and led his team's recovery. Pandya was the last to fall, with the team managing 169 – a score that would have been impossible without Pandya’s valiant 79.
Barring this one knock, Pandya didn’t contribute much in the unofficial Test series, which Australia A won 1-0 eventually after the second match was drawn. However, this patient innings against Australia A could well be the catalyst to his Test call-up, considering that chief selector MSK Prasad was present on the tour Down Under.
Prasad noted after the team for the England Test series was announced that the Baroda all-rounder’s ability to swing the ball and generate pace had increased. He also declared that Pandya was a better option than Binny, a choice India were contemplating earlier.
“He's much quicker and better bowler than Binny, and batting also he's doing really well. Stuart is also definitely considered but as of now, with form, fitness and other aspects, we feel Hardik is much better,” Prasad said at a press conference in Mumbai after announcing the squad.
Prasad also asserted that India had been trying to find someone who can take Kapil's place since the legendary all-rounder's retirement in 1994. "We all have been trying to find an all-rounder after Kapil Dev. In case we play three spinners, he (Pandya) can be the second seamer and also can bat."
It’s still uncertain whether Pandya will feature in the playing XI. But his inclusion offers variety for captain Virat Kohli to play with. England's vulnerability to spin could tempt the Indian captain to field three spinners. But in order to get the combination right, India may have to play an all-rounder, which works perfectly well for Pandya.
The Baroda all-rounder has shown that he improves with confidence, be it smashing 51-ball-81 in a losing cause in the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament, or leaking 19 runs in the first over of his debut T20I match, or picking up two wickets on successive balls in his next spell.
The best memory of his short career has been the last over he bowled in the 2016 World T20 match against Bangladesh, in which he defended 2 runs off the last three balls. His recent run in limited-overs has been fairly successful. He picked up three wickets in his first ODI at Dharmasala against New Zealand and his knock of 45 at Delhi almost helped India beat the Kiwis in the second ODI. The Baroda lad should aim to keep the momentum going in the Test series if he’s selected in the playing XI.
Producing an all-rounder is not an overnight job. Individual batting and bowling performances hog most of the limelight in most matches, and the little contributions from all-rounders often go unnoticed. Appreciation will be key to nurture Pandya in the future; he needs to be told about the value he brings to the side. It’s also necessary that Pandya stays fit because being an all-rounder is an arduous job. It takes a toll on your body and eventually players give it up to concentrate only on their stronger aspect – batting or bowling. India in the recent past have given a long rope to players before deciding on their fate. One hopes that the same happens with Pandya.
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