MS Dhoni is a straight talker in his press conferences. As captain of the Indian team, he was so open in his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the team that people who are supposed to analyse and write about the game were often rendered useless.
One of Dhoni's biggest lament was the lack of seam bowling all-rounders in the country. He had the likes of Irfan Pathan, Stuart Binny, Rishi Dhawan to choose from, but none of them could impress him at the international level. At one point Dhoni simply declared, "We don’t have a seaming all-rounder so let’s not even go to that topic."
It's no secret that seam bowling all-rounders are worth their weight in gold for the balance they lend to the team. Most teams that perform consistently across formats and in different conditions have a seam-bowling all-rounder as their talisman. In this day and age, when the perceived value of a cricketer can be assessed in terms of numbers he can fetch in IPL auction, the price tag for quality all-rounders is further testament to their immense value.
The last genuine seam bowling all-rounder India had was Manoj Prabhakar, a man who could open the batting and bowling for you and win the game either with the bat or ball. Irfan Pathan showed promise for a while, but unfortunately, as his batting prospered, his bowling lost zip.
Most seam bowling all-rounders that came along in the post-Prabhakar era were primarily batsmen who could bowl military medium pace. Sanjay Bangar, Robin Singh, to some extent even Saurav Ganguly were a handful with the ball when conditions suited them, but lack of speed meant good batsmen could always line them up in batsmen-friendly conditions.
It wasn't until Hardik Pandya made his ODI debut against New Zealand at Dharamsala in 2016 did we see an all-rounder bowling at 140+ kmph consistently. Pandya had played for India before in T20s, but a stint with the India A team at the Rahul Dravid finishing school meant he had found an extra yard of pace in his bowling. For the first time in many years, Team India and its fans felt they are looking at a prospective all-rounder that they have been searching for years.
Perhaps it was the fact that Pandya had his ODI cap handed to him by Kapil Dev or maybe it was because Pandya himself said during the Man of the Match presentation that he was told Kapil Dev also debuted on the same day, the comparisons with Kapil Dev started that very day.
Comparing a man who hadn't played a Test match yet, to the veteran of 434 wickets and 5000 Test runs, and perhaps the greatest cricketer India ever produced was absurd. When people have short attention spans and even shorter memory, these easy catchlines do crop up from time to time and aren't meant to be taken seriously. But during the current series in England, a Television commentator needlessly legitimised the comparison by saying Pandya is nowhere near Kapil Dev yet. Pandya himself later had to clarify that he doesn't want to be a Kapil Dev. It has come to a stage now that whether he likes it or not, Pandya will be compared with Kapil Dev all the time. Pandya has to get used to it, similar to how Kohli has got used to comparisons with Tendulkar even if he doesn't like them.
Pandya deserves to be criticised if his performances aren't up to the mark. But critics who asked for his head after India's loss in the 4th Test against England need to take stock. The man had just bowled a match-winning spell at Trent Bridge taking his first 5-wicket haul and guiding India to a famous win. Surely, he can't become worthless in the space of one game.
It's convenient to say the team should play a proper batsman instead of Pandya. But at what price? You need the extra bowling option if you have to send down hundred plus overs in an innings. Play a pure batter instead of Pandya and risk getting your fast bowlers injured in a five-Test series. Kohli continually talks about the quantity of cricket his team has to play these days and is desperate to keep his best fast bowlers fit. To ensure this, Pandya is Kohli's insurance policy with the ball.
Kohli still needs to learn to use Pandya better. He needs to make sure Pandya sends down a few overs every innings. When Pandya contributes with the ball, his batting will automatically prosper. That's how it works with most all-rounders. Even the world's best all-rounder at the moment wrote in his autobiography "Firestarter", how he would focus on his bowling during net practice since he thinks batting is his stronger forte and will automatically feed off his bowling performances.
To be fair to Kohli, he is already using Pandya better than how he was doing at the start of the series. He bowled Pandya before Shami in the first inning at Southampton and was rewarded with Cook's wicket. Kohli must let Pandya know that he isn't just a fallback option for him and must be ready to bowl at all times in the game.
With the bat, Pandya's struggles are mainly in his head. Made to bat at number 6, he sees himself as a top order batsman and gets into a defensive mindset. Pandya can be a real weapon if Kohli frees him to go and express himself irrespective of the consequences. Probably, the best way to do that at the moment is to make him bat at number 7 with Ashwin or Pant/Karthik batting at 6. Pandya should know that no matter what the match situation is, he must back his instincts with the bat and look to hit boundaries.
Pandya isn't a finished product yet, but he has shown enough potential to be given a long rope and to be persisted with. It's as much a responsibility of team management as Pandya himself to clearly understand and state his role and his worth in the team. He may not be the next Kapil Dev by any stretch of the imagination, but at the moment he is the only piece that can fit into a particular slot in Kohli's overall game plan.