A day before this Test, Hardik Pandya posted a picture on Twitter, dressed in Test whites, which stood at odds with his blonde streaks and fancy studs. Written beside it was: “What better to live moments which i often fantasized as a growing kid! The Paramount to represent India in whites.” It stirred a Twitter frenzy, a plethora of speculation as to whether he would make his debut. Maybe, he knew he was playing, or maybe it was posted out of the enthusiasm after being handed over the Test kit, as there was no number inscribed beside the India logo.
On the morning of the Test, after Ravi Shastri fitted the blue cap over his blonde streaks, he proudly tugged at the logo, showing the number stitched beneath it — 289. A childhood dream was thus realised after several years of struggle, through sheer talent and courage.
His first big moment in Test cricket came almost at the stroke of lunch. The pavilion-bound Wriddhiman Saha tapped on his back and the dressing room clapped until he marked his guard. Out there, he was unflustered, in sync with his uber cool image, the studs and swagger and all that. An hour or so later, he wrapped up his debut with a memorable half-century, a knock laden with whiplash pulls and audacious lofted drives, and occasional streaks of luck, like the reprieve at first slip when he was on four, and the initial bouncer barrage. But he kept his cool and piled up the aggression, pulling the pacers with carefree abandon and depositing Rangana Herath over the ropes, and once even into the garden at the entrance of the stadium.
All thrilling and intoxicating, but a more encouraging facet of his batting was the maturity he exuded while batting with Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, with whom he added 83 runs. He didn’t hold back his impulses, but just shifted gears. He was not always looking to take a single off the last ball and drag the match along, but rather unleashed the full fury of his strokes. If he sniffed he had the slightest of chance to clear the ropes or squeeze a boundary, he readily did so. It seemed to not bother him at all.
The composure impressed Cheteshwar Pujara. “He’s trusting his strengths, and I think that’s the way he should be batting going ahead. It was the right situation for him and the way he bats. I think he could dominate the bowlers, play his shots, and especially when he is playing with the tail-enders. That’s the way he should be playing. And he has showcased that even at the highest level,” he observed.
Sterner tests ahead
However, Pandya, as his career progresses, will face sterner tests. This was perhaps the most advantageous of circumstances in which he would have come out to bat — the team closing in on 500, the strip eased out and bowlers totally blunt. He was under no pressure whatsoever and could afford to have a merry- go-round and chance his bat and luck. But situations wouldn’t always be this favourable. He would have to come into bat with the team in crisis, like for say six down for 150-odd runs, on a vicious pitch and bowlers with their tails up. How he responds to such situations would offer better insight into his mental toughness and cricketing wisdom, as whether he would go hammer and tongs or choose a more restrained and conventional grind-and-graft method. Knowing his nature, he might not flinch, but there are limitations for even courage and convictions.
Moreover, he has to tick the other big box, whether he is a canny enough bowler at this level. In the limited-overs formats, he has improved dramatically in the last few years, especially in terms of speed and accuracy. But Test cricket, as the grim wiseacres would say, is a different beast altogether, where reward won’t be as instant as in T20s or ODIs. Skipper Virat Kohli believes he can prosper. “Every game that he plays, on any surface, he has a knack of picking wickets,” he points out. But the evidence is merely on the basis of short-form cricket. Even his first-class wicket tally is modest — 24 scalps at 35.66 in 17 matches.
But, the criteria should be slightly different in assessing him. The yardsticks of measuring an out-and-out fast bowler or a specialist batsman aren’t applicable in his case. So, he should be evaluated on the basis of sheer utility — a tight burst for the fast bowlers to cool their heels, a couple of partnership-breaking wickets, a breezy half-century. On Thursday, he wasn’t summoned to bowl. But on Friday, he will be at some point in time. Therein lies the opportunity to tick the other box, make his debut Test even more memorable.