Often, when a new building is constructed on a piece of land where an old, iconic monument once stood tall, it becomes difficult to evaluate the present-day structure without stacking it up against what was once the pride of the town. Indian cricket isn’t known for producing too many all-rounders, so if you bowl above 130 kmph, and can hit a mean blow, it is nigh impossible for you to play an international match without the media or the audience, or indeed both, mentioning Kapil Dev at least once. There is a hint of hope attached to every No 6 batsman who can turn his arm over, like looking at a messiah to bring light and prosperity.
Over the last quarter of a century, they have tried a fair few hopefuls, and most of them have found the shoes too big to fill. But Hardik Pandya isn’t quite like everyone else. He exudes a confidence that liberates him from the chains of comparison. He is a terrific athlete, regularly clocks 140+ and bats with a nonchalance that borders on arrogance, but does enough to hold your attention.
Hardik’s prodigious natural ability has rarely been in doubt, and in natural, logical progression, he has been measured by his growth, and the chart looks bright. In limited-overs cricket, he is now a default selection, and under a captain like Virat Kohli who likes to back his five bowlers to bowl their full quota, he’s become key to the balance of this ever improving Indian side. As with most all-rounders, Hardik has often been thrown at deep ends; asked to bowl a tight spell after the opening bowlers have been taken to the cleaners or at times, promoted to bat at No 4 after the fall of early wickets. Even if not always successfully, he’s jumped in with great ardour at every opportunity, and that is usually a sign of a very confident cricketer.
When called on to play Test cricket against Sri Lanka last year, Hardik responded with a fifty and a whirlwind century. Many could validly point out that striding out on your debut when the score reads 500-odd for 5 isn’t the toughest ask on the planet, but few would grab the chance with both hands without getting complacent, even fewer would play with the conviction that Hardik showed. Against South Africa at Cape Town, India were 76/5 when he came on to bat. His 93, plucky and chance-laden as it might’ve been, closed all discussions around his contribution and importance in longform cricket.
Along with his technical growth, his progress as a mentally strong cricketer has been astounding and it showed at the deciding T20 at Bristol. Hardik conceded 22 off his first over, and by the time he came back for his second, England were threatening to run away with the match. His next three overs yielded four wickets for only 16 runs, and went a long way in limiting England to 198 on a 220+ pitch. India needed 48 from 31 when Pandya came to the crease, and he responded with a 14-ball 33, replete with a match-winning six.
This is Hardik’s first full tour of England, and if his young but burgeoning career is anything to go by, he won’t clutter his head with expectations of “performing away from home”. He will leave that to his more measured and balanced teammates. Hardik rides and thrives on confidence and mental fortitude, and if he can touch the zone that has made him the superstar he is, India are likely to have a fruitful summer.
For all his growth, Hardik still has a steep curve to climb towards becoming one of the world’s elite all-rounders. He isn’t yet at a position where he can walk into sides purely on either of the two disciplines he’s expected to master. Consistency apart, Hardik is yet to become a convincing batting presence in either form of the game, even though he’s shown sporadic signs of what might be in store when he finally hits that level.
As a bowler, his growth has been tremendous, and in the absence of a fit Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and possibly even Jasprit Bumrah, captain Kohli will look at him as more than just a bit-part bowler. Over the last year, Hardik has grown tremendously as a limited-overs bowler, consistently turning in his full quota at an acceptable economy rate and a decent knack for wickets. This England tour will be his litmus test as a Test bowler. One half of the jigsaw will fall in place for Hardik Pandya the all-rounder if he can harness the red-ball’s magic in conducive English conditions.
Hardik is an accidental cricketer; in a sport which still likes to hinge on many of its gentlemanly traditions and values, he is tabloid magnet with affinity for peroxide bleach and tattoos. Already out of the fishing nets for the next Kapil Dev, he’s on his way to becoming the first Hardik Pandya, and this England tour could well be his coming of age.
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