In characteristically theatrical fashion, Hardik Pandya returned to international cricket. A catch that invoked the is-it-a-plane-or-bird allusion, emitting the tireless energy of a hyperactive kid, bowling 10 stifling overs, and emphasising the logic in hurrying him back from the mess back home. Barring his batting — which wasn’t required — it was a perfect advertisement of his skills.
Later in the day, his pleased captain Virat Kohli showered all the praises that had been repeatedly heaped on Pandya since his IPL entry. Of his explosiveness and effervescence, of team balance and X factor, of the vital maneuverability he provides. Pandya can enable Kohli to play both wrist-spinners, two seamers and six batsmen, he can bank on Pandya to provide batting impetus — whether down the order, in the middle order or as a pinch-hitter. But Pandya can also give Kohli a problem of plenty as him being in the team also means leaving out a world-class pacer, a bowler who, when fit and in form, can walk into any playing XI in the world. If June 5, when India take on South Africa in their World Cup opener, were tomorrow and Jasprit Bumrah fit, Pandya would force the Indian team management to leave Bhuvneshwar Kumar on the bench. And for a few games after that too.
It looks quite straightforward — and India’s default plan — in more ways than one. He can perform the fifth-bowling chores, as he did on his ODI comeback at Mount Maunganui and for most of his career; if there’s a hint of moisture and bounce, he can be uncannily penetrative. Like on his ODI debut at Dharamsala, or against England in Kolkata, wherein he conceded 49 runs and took three wickets in a total of 321. From a wispy run-up, Pandya can extract pace and occasional seam movement.
Though his bat hasn’t flung violently like in that 43-ball 76 in the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan, he sporadically exhibits his big-hitting prowess. In England, where 350 has become the score to target, what with dry pitches and vaulting ambitions, Pandya’s long handle could be summoned more frequently than it ever has been. Kohli specified this during a press conference in Australia: “When you are chasing 350 or trying to set such a score, you need someone like Pandya down the order to give that lift.”
All that makes him undroppable, and he needn’t be thought beyond. But Plan B, a proper three-pronged pace attack with Bhuvneshwar in the mix to go with two spinners, has its merits too.
An unforeseen predicament
It’s a strange predicament, unforeseen a few months ago, before the “world’s best bowler” according to his Sunrisers Hyderabad teammate David Warner, ran into an unfortunate string of injuries, before Mohammed Shami overcame his own set of breakdowns, and pivotally, before the simultaneous ascent of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. Playing two wrist-spinners is a luxury anywhere in the world, not least in England, but they have transcended a perceived indulgence into an inevitability in recent months. They could be India’s USP at the World Cup — such is the deserved excitement around them.
This leaves us with Bhuvneshwar and the puzzle to squeeze him into the playing eleven. The easiest solution is to play them both, which could have been the case before the wrist-spinners’ sustained progress. In such an eventuality, Bhuvneshwar’s inclusion could only be ensured at the expense of a batsman, which is as much as nonviable as it’s risk-prone. It would mean Bhuvneshwar slotted at No. 7 and Pandya at No. 6. The latter’s batting, as it’s now, doesn’t inspire confidence to assume a specialist’s role. Or to put it bluntly, he cannot lay claim to a spot on his singular batting gifts. Or for that matter his bowling skills. He’s, for all practical purposes, a bits-and-pieces cricketer. And Bhuvneshwar’s batting faculties, for all his pluck, don’t meet the demands of an ODI No. 7. India’s lower order could be longer, even by Test match yardsticks.
The only other practical alternative is a straight Bhuvneshwar-for-Hardik swap. It’s a complicated shootout, for the skills one is comparing are varied. Bhuvneshwar can’t provide the magic word in cricket — balance — as much as Hardik’s bowling can’t offer the multi-dimensionality of Bhuvneshwar. The latter’s tool-set is the envy of bowlers the world over. He can seam and swing, both conventional and unorthodox, has an assorted tray of slower balls, cutters, yorkers and every vaunted gift in a modern-day bowler’s bag. Irrespective of surfaces, he can heckle wickets, is terrific in powerplays and death overs. And on helpful surfaces, he can scythe through batting orders.
Conversely, Pandya at his best can be nagging and skiddy, generally seams the ball into the right-hander, but little more than that. Batsmen have often underestimated him, only to rue their indiscretion. He takes wickets at 40 and bleeds 5.52 an over, not hideous numbers for a fifth bowler. Bhuvneshwar’s numbers are not staggering either – he picks his wickets at 36, which’s profligate for a front-line seamer. Even post his recalibration (in the last two years), Bhuvneshwar averages 33. Then again, for someone who mostly bowls at the death and powerplays, his economy rate of 4.98 is stupendous. Add Bhuvneshwar into the bowling attack, the trio of him, Bumrah and Shami becomes fearsome.
Consistency is the key
So when a quandary as this arises, it could boil down to their ability to influence matches single-handedly and consistency. It’s here that perhaps Bhuvneshwar scores over Pandya. For Bhuvneshwar’s good days outnumber Pandya’s. The latter’s bowling average in matches India have won is 38 (overall 40), his batting average is 31 (29). Bhuvneshwar’s average drops to 25 (from 36) and his batting average shoots to 25 (from 20). In 42 innings he has bowled in, Hardik has bled six or more runs an over 16 times, which is once every two-and-a-half outings. On the other hand, Bhuvneshwar has leaked more than six an over in 23 matches, once every four-and-a-half matches.
Bhuvneshwar’s inclusion could also boil down to perceptions and priorities. If Kohli is more concerned about hunting down 350-plus totals, Pandya holds a stronger case. If he’s worried about restricting teams to 300, Bhuvneshwar might be his man. Likewise, against a batting heavy-side, Bhuvneshwar could come into the picture while against a bowling-centric team, Pandya could be his choice. What the dilemma offers Kohli is tactical flexibility – and a glorious Plan B.