Hardik Pandya’s blond streak looks like a burning flame above the forehead. Chances are it could well be the tip of the raging fire that burns in his belly. On a pitch where the team’s more-accomplished batsmen struggled, in a country where the celebrated past-masters have been humbled, Pandya showed that cricket was kind to those with a stout heart.
He showed that an uncanny knack of connecting bat to ball, unflagging self-belief, fearlessness and a high pain-threshold can see a cricketer rise through the ranks — from IPL to ODIs to now Tests — with his reputation intact.
He showed that Test cricket wasn’t only for the specialists, for bits-and-pieces gutsy cricketers with dyed hair too could hold their own on a field full of men in white.
Pandya’s 95-ball 93 at No.7 had many dimensions and it changed a number of equations. It added heft to the Indian total and reduced the deficit. India, after the long struggle to reach 100, finished at 201. And South Africa’s lead that once threatened to be in three-digits was a mere 77.
By stumps, South Africa increased their lead to 142. They finished the day at 65/2, with Pandya’s adrenalin rush continuing till the last session. He ran in fast, hit the deck, kept the ball on the off-stump, clocked in the high 130s, got the openers and finished with figures of 2/17. South Africa had definitely nosed ahead but India weren’t yet losing breath. With the runners reaching the home-stretch, it will be the ‘final kick’ that will decide the winner.
Pandya’s daredevilry also justified the team’s selection policy that promotes the brave new way in which India prefers to play Test cricket. For the opening Test, India didn’t pack its playing XI with batters as a safety first measure. They punted on — rather invested in — an all-rounder. Piling a mountain of runs to avoid losing was so Nineties and Noughties, this team aspires to boldly tread the winning ways.
A vital piece of the jigsaw
These days India plan to take 20 wickets, not just the first innings lead. They dare to drop a quality batsman — the team’s vice-captain — for someone who doesn’t have his quality in batting but could bowl around 140 kph. In the new template that Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli propagate; Pandya happens to be the vital piece of the jigsaw. As the sun started to hide behind the Table Mountain, the Indian players dragged their feet to the dressing room. With defeat looming they didn’t look like a completed jigsaw but Pandya, with his blonde streak, shone the brightest in the backdrop of the beautiful Newlands dusk.
However, among the Indian fans they spoke of a new dawn. They asked that terribly old question freshly: So is Hardik the next Kapil Dev? For now, he can be Kapil minus the out-swinger and the ever-clicking bowling brain. But his batting does remind one of the man who was famous as the Haryana Hurricane. Pandya’s batting is a throwback to the all-rounders of the 80s, those unconventional and highly entertaining batsmen whose entry on the field was eagerly-awaited by the fans.
Pandya’s one stroke — his ferocious cut – instinctively brings to the mind both Kapil, Botham and even Imran Khan. As Newlands witnessed it today, Pandya threw everything he had in him at the ball when it was pitched short and outside the off-stump. It’s a stroke that can give the point and gully fielders a hairline fracture. Of his 14 boundaries, six rocketed to the square fence on the off-side.
Besides these storkes, Pandya got in the T20 casualness to the perceived sanctimony of the Test arena. He did things that Test-specialists don’t. He would start by stepping out against Philander, the day’s most impressive bowler, and the edge would fly through the slip cordon. He would ramp Rabada behind the wicket-keeper. He would also move around the crease as the South African pace battery would bowl diabolically short.
Pandya would get hit on the belly, lie down, get on his feet with the alacrity of a gymnast, all the time agonizing in pain. Pandya on the crease gave Test cricket new and refreshing frames. He would smile when the pacers stared at him and, in a first of sorts, he pumped his fists, while at the non-striker’s end, on surviving a session.
Since his early days as a struggling cricketer from a lower-middle class family in Vadodara, Pandya would stand out because of this persona and attitude. With his Caribbean swagger, pierced ears and cocky quotes, he would often get unfairly judged. His self-belief and confidence would often be seen as arrogance and dismissed as just another neo-rich IPL star. And when he started getting the tag of a ‘rock star’, you feared this gig wasn’t going to last long.
However, Pandya kept rising, he didn’t let the riches dilute his dreams. He was a captain’s delight. He never shied away from a challenge. A promotion up the order, bowling in the powerplay or going for an absolute impossible catch that ran the risk of a serious injury; Pandya wasn’t a slacker.
About three years ago, when the last Test skipper MS Dhoni’s search for a Test all-rounder was a national talking point, Hardik had put his hand up. The fact that he had just played one IPL edition and hadn’t yet represented Vadodara for one whole season didn’t bother him. “Do you think I am the all-rounder India is looking for,” he had asked a reporter while fielding on the fence during a Ranji Trophy match. His hair wasn’t streaked back then but the fire was ever-present inside. Today it was out there for the world to see. At Newlands, watching the fielder on the boundary rope, in the stands the fans were heard saying, “This is the all-rounder India has been looking for.”