At the start of the 115th over, when Hardik Pandya surveyed the field, he must have felt surprised at the unusual sight of nine men patrolling the ropes. It was his six off chinaman Lakshan Sandakan in the previous over that might have prompted Dinesh Chandimal into this cynical tactic. But never the one to shy away, Pandya sensed an opportunity in that challenge.
“Could there have been a bigger opportunity than that? It was an ideal opportunity, especially as the team had already crossed the initial goal of 400 runs,” he would later say, guffawing. To him the nine-man field was a licence to cut loose.
By the end of that over, bowled by left-arm spinner Malinda Pushpakumara, Chandimal fathomed the futility of his tactic, as Pandya had reduced the nine-men wall to passive spectators, clearing the ropes thrice, crunching two fours and looting 26 runs to crush their newfound optimism. The knife had been twisted. Thereafter Sri Lanka withered. Pandya completed a memorable maiden hundred, thus steering India to 487, which would be rendered all the more imposing by Sri Lanka’s amateurish first-innings capitulation and a reeling start to their second dig. With the hosts still 333 runs behind, their fate is all but sealed, barring a miracle of the Eden Gardens 2001 scale.
In reality, Sri Lanka never recovered from Pandya’s shellacking. He left them deeply scarred — it normally happens when a No 8 batsman unleashes such unbridled fury and diverts the course of the match — so much so that it reflected on their listless batting performance too. Sri Lanka might have been looking to restrict India to less than 400 when the Pandya storm blew them over. In hindsight, his extra runs gave Kohli the cushion to enforce the follow-on.
More than the amount of runs, it was the nonchalant manner in which he scored them that deflated Sri Lanka. The science and art of Pandya’s batting is simple. He essentially looks to hit them down the ground, than heave them through cow corner, like most lower-order batsmen. All three of his sixes in that Pushpakumara over were struck sweetly straight — two over long-off and one beyond long-on. Only his first boundary bore from a cross-batted swipe through midwicket. Though he doesn’t look a robust enough batsman to simply park himself at the crease and heft the ball over the ropes, he sets a good base at the crease. The head seldom falls over, the body is firmly rooted, the bat-swing fluid and the transfer of weight seamless. By doing so, he generates considerable power and timing behind his shots.
The magic mark
Thus, in one over, he moved from 57 to 83, infusing hopes of a maiden Test hundred. Heck, his first hundred in first-class cricket too. He later confided he didn’t know when he last scored a hundred. “Under-19 cricket I think, or Under-23? I don’t remember at all,” Pandya said. You could sense it was no pretence, but a genuine admission.
He took just 16 more deliveries, which included a brace of sixes and a thunderous boundary, to bring up his hundred before bursting into the new-celebration gig — the statue pose and the V sign, on cue with his flamboyance, the studs and tattoos and all. “I had promised Dhawan that I would celebrate the same way if I did something worth celebrating today,” he said. The meaning of it though will “stay in the dressing room”.
He definitely harmonised an occasion worthy of celebration, so much so that he could end India’s pursuit for a pace-bowling all-rounder. The verdict, of course, can wait. But he demonstrated he has the game and nous to bat in different circumstances. For India were in a dire situation, 339/7, when Wriddhiman Saha perished in the second over of the day, leaving him with just Kuldeep Yadav, whose batting skills were untested at this level, and the tail.
One would have imagined that the free-spirited Pandya would go for his strokes straightaway. That’s his instinct. But instead, he was wary and vigilant, looking to strike only the gift-wrapped deliveries for boundaries, realising that it wasn’t yet the most opportune moment to break free. Also, he had confidence in Kuldeep’s batting skills.
Thus, rotating the strike and sustaining the tempo, the pair resurrected India and took them past the 400-run mark. He added 62 with Kuldeep, before he looted 86 with the tail, of which his contribution was 75.
“I knew Kuldeep can bat and took singles with him. Even Shami and Umesh can bat, but you also know that when you have one wicket left, you play a different game; when you have three wickets, you play differently. I just batted according to the situation,” he said. A lower-order batsman aware of the situation, so early in his career, is hard to find.
But this maturity, that’s often belied in his flashy exterior, has been the gripping thread of his staggering progress in international cricket, making transitions from T20 to ODI to Tests looking incredibly effortless. “Actually not, a lot of hard work and sweat are involved,” Pandya countered. He wasn’t finished yet, as he came back and demonstrated his bowling utility by trapping Angelo Mathews plumb in front.
The comparisons, though premature, with Kapil Dev have already begun. Pandya is more puzzled than amused, before he comes up with a more realistic perspective. “Even if I can be 10 per cent of what he (Kapil) was, I will be pretty happy in my life.”