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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

All eyes on Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar as South Africa ODI series begins

Pandya's sharp, incisive medium pacers give Kohli the cushion to play five genuine bowlers, and his big-hitting prowess the flexibility to utilise him either as a finisher in big chases, or prop him up the order to boost the run rate while setting targets.

Written by Vishal Menon | Dharamsala |
Updated: March 12, 2020 10:08:33 am
India players train in Dharamsala on eve of the South Africa series (Twitter/BCCI)

When seen in isolation, the three-match ODI series between India and South Africa offers little context, especially since the shortest version of the game has gained more importance in the run-up to the T20 World Cup that’s just seven months away. However, there’s a lot on the line for two key India players — all-rounder Hardik Pandya and pacer Bhuvneshwar Kumar — whom are making comebacks after long injury layoffs.

Pandya had been ruled out since September 2019 with a back injury. Bhuvneshwar suffered a side strain in July 2019, recovered, and was included for the T20I series against West Indies last year. But the Uttar Pradesh bowler broke down again, this time due to a groin injury, following which he underwent a sports hernia surgery. Over the last two months, he has spent considerable time at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, where he underwent a rehabilitation programme.

Both Pandya and Bhuvneshwar know that this short series assumes utmost importance for their respective careers. Robust performances against the Proteas will not only get them back into the groove, but also serve as a confidence-booster with the Indian Premier League starting later this month and the T20 World Cup later in the year.

Pandya attended an optional practice session, where he bowled at full tilt for close to half an hour, to show that the problem with his back is a thing of the past. A little while later, when he turned up to bat, he sent everyone scampering for cover with his belligerent hitting. From the outside, it looked like the all-rounder had hit his straps. It’s not as if he is coming into this series absolutely cold. In fact, at the DY Patil T20 tournament in Mumbai last week, the 26-year-old smashed a 55-ball unbeaten 158, which included 20 sixes. That innings came on the heels of a 39-ball 105 two days earlier.

Captain Virat Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri will breathe a huge sigh of relief after Pandya’s return. He adds balance to the playing XI as a seam-bowling all-rounder. His sharp, incisive medium pacers give Kohli the cushion to play five genuine bowlers, and his big-hitting prowess the flexibility to utilise him either as a finisher in big chases, or prop him up the order to boost the run rate while setting targets. In essence, Pandya’s success in the two roles would solve the twin issues of the lack of batting depth and a quality fifth bowler, something that came to the fore during the ODI series in New Zealand. In Pandya’s absence, the team management experimented with the likes of Vijay Shankar and Shivam Dube, with little success, since neither Shankar nor Dube possess Pandya’s ability to alter a match through bowling, batting or athleticism on the field. Simply put, Pandya brings energy and dynamism to this team.

The all-rounder couldn’t have asked for a better venue than the scenic HPCA Stadium to make a comeback. He will have fond memories of the ground, where he made his ODI debut in October 2016 against New Zealand. Back then, neither the sense of occasion nor the big stage seemed to rattle Pandya. He bagged three wickets that day to walk away with the Player of the Match award.

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Like Pandya, Bhuvneshwar is a vital cog in India’s limited-overs plans. To know how arduous it is for a pacer to make a comeback after an injury, he needs to look no further than Jasprit Bumrah, who has not quite looked the irresistible force he was after recovering from a stress fracture in the lower back at the end of last year. Bumrah’s lacklustre performances in New Zealand — he went wicketless in the three ODIs before finding some his rhythm in the final Test in Christchurch — are a useful case study.

Ahead of the series opener, Bhuvneshwar opened up on his insecurities as a bowler returning from an injury. “It’s difficult to maintain your pace when you’re returning from an injury since the possibility of getting injured again remains at the back of your mind. The best option is to play matches like I did before returning (he also played in the DY Patil T20 tournament). In doing so, you gain confidence from playing matches before stepping it up,” he reasoned.

Bhuvneshwar would be relishing the prospect of sharing the new ball with Bumrah again. For a brief time, the two had forged a great partnership together, with their vastly contrasting bowling styles. Bumrah with his slingy, unorthodox action and Bhuvneshwar with his swing made it a match-winning combination.

Bhuvneshwar’s return comes at a time when the confidence of India’s famed pace attack seems to have taken a hit. Mohammed Shami looked jaded, while Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur conceded plenty in the series in New Zealand. However, like Pandya, Bhuvneshwar will not mind bowling at Dharamsala. It’s a venue that tends to aid swing, and if stars align, he could be quite a handful on this pitch.

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