Who’s is Team India’s MVP, who is their Mr Irreplacable? Rohit Sharma, you might say right now, with four centuries in seven World Cup innings. There will — of course — be a chorus of Virat Kohli fans, clamouring for their king to be named foremost and first, even though he hasn’t quite made this World Cup his own. With good reason, many will anoint Jasprit Bumrah, and it gladdens my heart to see a bowler spoken of so.
But really, it’s Hardik Pandya isn’t it?
Shikhar Dhawan’s injury told us a thing or two about how we can and should measure the impact of a player. Dhawan would not have been very high on an ‘irreplaceable list’, but his injury did upset the balance of the team, forcing two changes, reigniting the No 4 debate and exposing India’s middle order. By that yardstick, imagine the balance of this Indian side without Pandya. Now try and stop thinking about a baby giraffe who is just learning how to use its legs.
India have bet heavily on Pandya, especially his bowling. They went into the tournament with just three frontline seamers. This, for a tournament spanning almost two months, in weather as predisposed towards muscle injuries as it is to precipitation. Already, India have had their first choice seamer miss games due to injury, and imagine if Mohammed Shami had picked up a niggle at that point. Hardik Pandya, opening the bowling. Shudder, shudder.
But Pandya, the bowler, hasn’t disappointed this World Cup. In fact, he’s exceeded expectations. He has bowled 59 overs so far of a possible 70, with eight wickets and a perfectly acceptable economy rate of 5.79. Let’s compare that to some of the other top seam bowling all-rounders in the fray. Marcus Stoinis has bowled 35 out of 60 possible overs, and is more expensive than Pandya and has taken seven wickets. Ben Stokes has bowled less than half of his possible 80 overs, but is more economical. So too are Jimmy Neesham and Colin DeGrandhomme, but both have bowled far less than Pandya, with 30 and 38 overs respectively out of a possible 70.
These numbers underline a fact that tells us two things: First: England, Australia, and New Zealand have sixth bowlers. Stokes need not bowl his full quota because he has Moeen Ali and Joe Root to fill in. Neesham and De Grandhomme are each other’s cover, a tag team of seam and swing. Australia and Stoinis have Glenn Maxwell.
Pandya has... Well, no one.
Vijay Shankar was picked for his ability to turn his arm over, but he is now back home after bowling just five overs and a few balls in three games. Kedar Jadhav is India’s sixth bowling option, but he’s bowled only six overs in the tournament so far. In India’s game against Bangladesh, he didn’t even play, leaving India with just five bowling options (which was almost reduced to four when Jasprit Bumrah took that tumble).
Secondly, it tells us that India — and Kohli — trust Pandya.
He has repaid the faith, too, putting in his best World Cup performance against Bangladesh, on a day where there was no cushion of a sixth bowler and against a team that bat deep. All three of his wickets on Tuesday were top order batters, all three well set. Twice he bested them with the kind of off-pace bowling that was perfect for the Edgbaston pitch; to Soumya Sarkar, he dug his slower one in short, and to Shakib Al Hasan he pitched it up. Litton Das was beaten by pace, a proper bouncer finding the shoulder of his bat.
Pandya came into the tournament with all the focus on his batting after a blistering IPL, and he has kept the spotlight on his blade with timely cameos. But he has quietly bowled his full complement of overs in four out of India’s seven games. That hasn’t just been headless head-high bowling; he has shown control over line, while varying his lengths intelligently. He has used the crease well, as well as the round-the-wicket angle to the left-handers. Very few talk about his natural seam position, which is consistently excellent. His off cutters have been deceptive, and will be seen more often in the last few games, with pitches starting to dry out after a damp start to the tournament. And while not taking the pace off, he has been around the 135 kmph mark. Just as importantly, Kohli has used him well, trying to get most of his overs out of the way by the 35th over if not earlier.
Pandya’s recent off-field comments have made him even more of a polarising figure than he was before, but no matter what you think of him, it’s impossible to deny how lucky India are to have a fast-bowling all-rounder of his quality. While I expect Jadhav to come back into the XI, Pandya’s competence is allowing Kohli to keep that option on the backburner. It’s a big deal that, just at the right time and on the biggest of stages, Pandya is inching closer towards being a true all-rounder, who can come into the team for either skill.