On October 17, 1994, an unremarkable autumn day on the outskirts of Delhi, Kapil Dev played what turned out to be his last match for India. It was evident then that he was leaving a pair of oversized cricketing shoes that would take a while to fill. But even the most cynical follower of Indian cricket couldn’t have wagered that ‘a while’ would turn out to be this long. Years ticked by and became decades. There were mirages and flashes in the pan, but not the real deal.
It felt as if Indian cricket fans weren’t waiting for the next pacer-allrounder but Godot.
Cut to October 16, 2016 in Dharamshala. The moment was dripping with symbolism as the legend himself handed the blue cap to Hardik Pandya — the latest next big hope — before the first match of the India versus New Zealand ODI series. Maybe the Indian team management thought that Kapil’s blessings would break the 21 years and 364 days-long jinx.
In his debut match in Dharamshala, Pandya was impressively fast and accurate and took three wickets to set up a comprehensive Indian victory. In the following match in Delhi on Thursday, he again shared the new ball and later nearly pulled off an improbable chase with a mature 36-run knock while batting with the tail.
Pandya’s swagger betrays he will take on the bowlers right from the start. It has also got something to do with the fact that he made his bones in T20, where at his position lower down the order, going for the big shots is the only option really. Therefore, even coach Anil Kumble wasn’t sure till Wednesday if the 23-year-old from Baroda could restrain himself.
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“He is someone who likes the freedom and that’s exactly what we have given someone like a Hardik. It doesn’t matter what the situation is when he walks in. I’m sure he’ll play the way he wants to play rather than how you want him to play,” said Kumble. With 71 needed off 63 on a tough track, Pandya showed he wanted to play to win rather than for the galleries. His first boundary wasn’t an ugly, malevolent heave but a picture-perfect cover drive that threaded the gap between short extra cover and mid-off you thought didn’t exist. There would be only two more boundaries from his blade. With a willing Umesh Yadav, he mostly ran hard. It was a less-risky Viratian sort of a chase — where the chasm between the balls remaining and the runs required is never allowed to widen much. And so, it came down to 16 needed off 12 balls. You knew this — and not the last — would be the over when Pandya would cut loose. He swung a wild one over mid-off on a short-of-a-length ball by Trent Boult and collected a four, but then perished trying to smash the left-armer’s bouncer down the ground.
In hindsight, with eight needed of 11, he could have played a safer shot against New Zealand’s best bowler on that evening. But it’s these little mistakes that should make him a better finisher, provided he reflects on them. Dhoni agreed.
“It will be harsh on him,” he said, defending Pandya. “He could have (finished the game). The option is always there.
You have to target who are the bowlers you want to hit. In these situations even last ball counts. It is good exposure when you are under the pump. It always teaches you a lot. maybe if that shot would have gone over point or for boundary, it would have been different. It will be harsh on him but he will slowly learn. Whether to finish early or in the last over will be his call.”
Lot at stake
A lot appears to be riding on the Pandya experiment in limited overs in the short to medium term. England host the Champions Trophy next year and the World Cup in 2019. The next Word Twenty20 in Australia in 2020. India will need a fast-bowling all-rounder for those kind of pitches — flattish, as has been the trend in the ICC tournaments lately.
A Ravindra Jadeja could be a sitting duck there, and Stuart Binny’s 120-odd kph won’t be of much help either (even in England where ODI pitches don’t offer much swing these days). Pandya is 10 years younger than Binny and over 15-20 kph faster. If he can work on his accuracy, he can be a valuable asset. By sharing the new-ball burden with someone like Umesh Yadav, he could provide — as he did in the first two matches — India the option of keeping the deadly Jasprit Bumrah for latter stages when batsmen look to hit out.
“We just have eight games before the Champions Trophy,” Dhoni said after the Dharamshala game. “So we would like to see how he (Pandya) reacts under different conditions and situations. How quickly he can adapt to the conditions. If he keeps on performing like what he did today I don’t see why we won’t pick him as the first of the three fast bowlers.”
Pandya is destiny’s child. A product of hardships, hard work and luck. ‘Luck’ because his final over against Bangladesh in Bangalore in World T20, that made him a hero, could have made him a villain if the batsmen hadn’t gone for glory strokes on half-trackers and full-tosses. And then Dhoni saved his fledgling career with that run out.
Pandya had acknowledged after the match: “I know this over may have made me a hero for tonight, but at the same time, it could have made me a criminal had I not defended it.” Or, rather Dhoni not ‘defended’ him, and then persisted with him. Maybe the Indian captain foresaw in this wiry bloke the man in whose search he has gone grey.