There is something peculiar about the second Test at Lord’s, which India lost by an innings and 159 runs within approximately two days. Pick up the scorecard, look up England’s innings, and you will find that Hardik Pandya finished as India’s most successful bowler with figures of 17.1-0-66-3.
These are better figures than both Ishant Sharma (22-4-101-1) and Mohammed Shami (23-4-96-3). In a way, Pandya’s haul laughs in the face of those questioning India’s team selection of not playing a third full-time pacer. He shrugged off suggestions — from the likes of Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton and Sourav Ganguly — that the visitors were missing a bowler.
“There was some thought behind two spinners, but I think three pacers were enough. We did well enough and bowled properly,” he opined after the third day’s play, as England stole an advantage through Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes.
Forget what the commentators said, and ask Bairstow instead. There is a lot of applause going around for Woakes, well deserved of course, but it was his partner who turned the game for England. They were struggling at 89-4 after lunch, and Shami-Ishant bowled attacking spells immediately after the break. They plugged away for nearly an hour, bowling in tandem with R Ashwin, while Bairstow weathered the storm (with Jos Buttler at the other end).
Two moments stand out from those two sessions of play. The first, in the morning, as Virat Kohli gave a nice lecture to Pandya during his opening spell. Two balls later, into a new over, he trapped Oliver Pope lbw. Kohli exulted, in his usual manner whenever a wicket falls, and then proceeded to hug Pandya tight. Whatever they had discussed, worked.
The second comes from that post-lunch session and underlines ‘in tandem with Ashwin’ as the key phrase. Kohli didn’t use Pandya from the other end along with Shami or Ishant. Did he not trust him enough? Was he holding Pandya back? The answer to that former question is unknown. The answer to the latter question is that Kuldeep Yadav bowled after Ashwin, with Pandya coming a tad too late in that session. Was it to justify playing two spinners? Again, that is not known.
Bairstow though will tell you how that tactic eased off pressure on England. Ishant and Ashwin bowled tightly, while Shami looked like taking a wicket every ball. Buttler was trapped lbw, but Bairstow only managed to waft through air on innumerable times. Shami then sulked away, as the intensity fell.
Stop here, and wonder aloud. Wouldn’t any batsman breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Pandya is to follow the likes of Shami-Ishant? Compare that to the first Test where Ben Stokes ran through the Indian middle and lower order in both innings. They had thought seeing James Anderson and Stuart Broad off was enough, only for Stokes to wreck the Indian innings twice in four days.
That is the key difference herein, and something not revealed by the scorecard. Pope was picked up after being worked over by Shami. Bairstow simply gave his wicket away, as he slowed down and became cautious before his hundred. On day four, Shami worked tirelessly to beat Woakes and Sam Curran innumerable times, yet they were not good enough to edge his deliveries. Pandya came along and Curran’s slog gave him the third wicket.
Truth be told, Pandya is not the bowler this Indian team management makes him out to be. Not yet anyway, and not in the Test format at least. At the start of this tour, one had written about how he is developing into a better white-ball bowler through clever changes of pace and subtle slower-ball variations. ODIs and T20Is though are formats that allow you to hide limitations. Test cricket is an infinite quantity — you are fighting against conditions, oppositions and time. There is nowhere to hide.
Sample this: In 15 innings across nine Tests that Pandya has played so far, he has bowled only 119.1 overs. That works out to 8 overs per innings and 16 overs a Test. It might work in the sub-continent where pacers don’t work much, and spinners share a heavier workload. But on overseas tours, Pandya is yet to bowl 20 overs in a single Test innings across South Africa and England. At Lord’s, where conditions were crying out loud for a third pacer, he was only the second-change bowler, after Kuldeep.
And while the team management deems Pandya as a world-beating all-rounder in Test cricket, the above factoid presents a staggering anomaly whichever way you look at it. At this juncture, the question to ask is if Pandya’s spot in the playing eleven should come under considerable doubt? Well, yes.
Away from bowling figures, Pandya simply hasn’t done justice with the bat either. Barring 93 against South Africa in Cape Town (and 71 against Afghanistan), he has scored 116 runs in 9 innings at average 12.88 against the Proteas and England. He failed to cross 20 in five latter innings in South Africa. While on this current tour, he boasts of three 20-plus scores — 22 and 31 in Birmingham, 11 and 26 at Lord’s — that is hardly progress.
Ironically, he is still India’s second-highest scorer (90 runs) after Kohli (240 runs) in this series, and given their current selection standards, it should be enough to keep Pandya’s spot in the playing eleven at Nottingham in the name of team balance. Even so, there is no doubt that he occupied a spot at Lord’s that ought to have gone to a full-time batsman or a third pacer, like in Johannesburg on a raging green-top.
“I see myself as a bowler when I am bowling. I see myself as a batsman when batting,” replied Pandya, when asked about his role in the Indian team. You want to say it is the very definition of an all-rounder, but on current evidence, that answer is vague at best.
It is almost as if there is a lack of identity — in the guise of an all-rounder, what exactly does Pandya bring to the table? No one really knows, and this ambiguity is only masking yet another shortcoming of India’s continuously flawed selection strategy in Test cricket.