On Sunday afternoon in Bristol, that green-top laid out for the final T20I surprised everyone watching. Perhaps it was the dryness of the atmosphere, perhaps it was just the blazing sun – that wicket didn’t swing, at all, and India were set on a leather hunt. England had made a blazing start, making the short boundaries count.
Over 4.4: Umesh Yadav had managed two dots after being smacked for a four first-ball. But he strayed again, too full and not straight enough, so Jason Roy smacked it down the ground. Only he hit it straight to Hardik Pandya at mid-off. The Baroda all-rounder didn’t get down on it in time, and it burst through his hands, the ball still had enough pace to reach the boundary. At cover, Virat Kohli turned away in disappointment.
Over 5.3: England were placed at 51/0 after five overs, with Umesh Yadav, Siddarth Kaul and debutant Deepak Chahar failing to find their rhythm on a green-top that didn’t swing. That last bit is again vital herein, for it explains what Pandya did first up. Short ball, smacked for four. Short ball, smacked for four. It was astounding to watch. The third one again was a short ball and Roy managed to go the distance, six.
Kohli, at mid-off now, was confounded. He had set a predominantly offside field for the bowler, who had just bowled three successive short deliveries. He spoke with Pandya, perhaps asking him to alter plans. The next ball was fuller, but Roy smacked it for six nevertheless.
22 runs came off that over as Pandya struggled to leash the English openers. For his pace, just a notch above military-medium, bowling short on a batting beauty with small boundaries is never an option. Yet, due to the expensive overs earlier, Pandya was forced to investigate if there was another method to bowl at Roy and Jos Buttler. There wasn’t.
“T20 is a funny game. You need to back yourself and try to bowl your best balls. My focus was that I bowled different balls than just trying to bowl yorkers or full length, because the straight boundary was very short, and those were going to be hit,” Pandya said after returning with 4-16 in the next three overs (final figures of 4-38).
In Bristol, England lost four wickets for 46 runs after the opening stand and then in the death overs, they lost five wickets off the last 15 balls. Pandya bookended both collapses – taking two in the first batch and then another two in the second. With Eoin Morgan, Alex Hales, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow to show for, he compensated that 22-run-over very well.
Truth told it wasn’t the first time he broke this English middle-order’s back. In Manchester, before Kuldeep Yadav spun his magic, it was Pandya who had applied brakes to the English scoring. They had scored 50-odd in the first five overs at Old Trafford, too. But the next five only returned with 22 runs with Pandya bowling 2-0-10-0. Yes, the last column doesn’t show any wickets, but in T20 cricket, dismissals aren’t the only currency a shrewd bowler can trade in. Dot balls are valuable too.
Six out of those first 12 balls in Manchester were dots. Two of them were clever changes in pace, highlighting that bowling slower on a flat deck was crucial. It was a plan Kuldeep followed to the tee and rocked England thereafter. In Bristol, he bowled four slower deliveries, including one disguised as a short ball. In his second spell, with the advantage of field spread out, he was able to size up the length more easily and choked the scoring.
“I am learning. With every game, I am learning something or the other and I am always looking to learn. It is helping improve my game,” said Pandya. At first glance, it seems like a template-answer. Dig deeper though, and the effort put in can be underlined with ease.
Sample this. A day before the T20I series got underway, Pandya bowled in the third net at Old Trafford. KL Rahul took first strike. After a few minutes, he fired in a slower-yorker. Rahul missed. Two balls later, another one. Rahul smacked it this time. Pandya walked up and asked if he had spotted it easily. Rahul nodded.
About 20 minutes later, Rohit Sharma came into the same net. Pandya tried the combination again. Rohit dug out the first one but took that extra second on second attempt to block the slower yorker. Pandya walked up again to ask the same question. Rohit nodded in agreement. The variation had worked, and it was subsequently put into use throughout the series.
“After I was hit for 22 in the first over, I was talking to my elder brother. He simply told me that I could still do it. I replied, yeah!” Pandya said about the Bristol game.
It underlines the growth of Pandya as a seam-bowling all-rounder. Did you know that he started working on that slower ball in Sri Lanka last summer? While it has appeared periodically in the games, it has taken this long for it to be cleverly disguised and become effective. And consequently then, sure, his batting aspect is as vital in the international context but not more than what Pandya does with the ball. It is what earns him a spot in the Indian line-up, without question, for this selection formula is now beyond doubt.
Count on your fingers – Rohit, Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli, MS Dhoni, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and the two wrist-spinners. A grounded Pandya, through his hard work behind the scenes, has slowly crept up as a guaranteed starter among these names, whenever fit and available.
It is easy to get carried away under this umbrella of protection when selection assurance is provided. Pandya, despite his exuberant streak off the field, has avoided that complacency.