Watching Ravindra Jadeja’s shattered stumps in the last over of the chase against Pakistan, Hardik Pandya plunged into the turf, as though mourning a personal loss. A few seconds later, he scrambled back onto his feet and sprinted towards Jadeja, still cussing the stroke that failed him, and wrapped an arm of comfort around him and uttered something in his ears that immediately brought some joy on Jadeja’s face. Perhaps, it was an assurance from Pandya that he would nail the chase, or maybe it was a joke.
Later, in a chat between the two, Pandya confessed that the only time he felt emotional during the innings was when Jadeja perished. Throughout the brief interaction, you could sense their comfort and camaraderie, like two friends conversing casually. You could sense that throughout their match-winning stand too. After almost every delivery, they would engage in a quick chat, a chuckle, or an exchange of notes, or an observation about a field change.
When Pandya missed a wild slog early in his innings, Jadeja would gesture to him to calm down and walk across to mutter something in his ear. Every time one of them struck a boundary, the other would rush down the other end and pump their gloved fists. Their running between the wickets was akin to an Usain Bolt-Yohan Blake relay, smooth and supersonic, messages conveyed through nods and glances, as though they have a deep understanding of each other’s thoughts and movements, as though they can think like each other. Perhaps, they could, even though they unite only for the national team.
Similar back stories
Both had to overcome harsh life realities in their childhood and teenage years. Their life-stories are well-storied—Jadeja’s father was a watchman at a private firm and lived in a one-room apartment allocated to his mother, who was a nurse in a government hospital. Pandya, with his brother Krunal, had to borrow kits from friends, surviving on instant noodles in his journey to cricketing stardom. Undoubtedly, the tough comeuppance years have instilled in them a knack of bouncing back from setbacks, multiple injuries, criticisms and ridicule, as well as perhaps the rawness that has marked their early years.
The pair could debate over who among them is the most trolled player, whose face is embossed into most memes, or whose failures are most celebrated, or whose blunders are most reviled. They would not be faulted if they were to think that they are valued and respected more outside their country than inside it. Or perhaps, they would not bother about such trivialities of how people or a nation judges them.
Nonetheless, they are two cricketers lost in perception. Rather, the perceptions about them have not changed in lieu with their transformation, even though they have upgraded their game to such an elevated level that they could be bracketed among the best contemporary all-rounders. But they are somehow seen through the same lens as they were seen in their younger days.
Pandya’s tale is still about trapped potential, immensely talented but a reckless cricketer, a man who seemed to struggle with the weight of his talent. Jadeja’s outward flashiness—the sword-swishing celebrations, the love for horses and the tone of swagger— is often misconstrued as arrogance.
Rarest of rare
The reality is above all such lazy assumptions. Together, they are the most precious cricketers in Indian cricket—even more so if Hardik could reclaim his Test-match bowling fitness. A left-arm spin bowling all-rounder and a seam-bowling all-rounder of this mettle, both electrifying fielders to boot, are a luxury few teams could imagine.
The distribution is inequitable—Australia, South Africa and New Zealand have seam-bowling all-rounders, but no one that can bowl quality spin (that includes Mitchell Santner). West Indies have a bunch of pseudo-allrounders; Pakistan and Sri Lanka have neither entities of striking brilliance. Bangladesh have Shakib-al-Hasan but no seamer who could bat. Only England could boast of a better pair on paper—Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali.
Together, Jadeja and Pandya could be the catalyst of changing India’s white-balls World title winning dreams into a reality. In the next 10 months, India would vie for winning two World Cups, T20s this year in Australia and the 50-overs one at home next year. Both would figure preeminently. The signs are getting clearer. Jadeja could be the floater, the left-handed dimension in the mix of right-handers heavy batting order. His batsmanship in T20s has drawn flak, but of late he has regained his old gusto that his focus on mastering Test-match batting seemed to have obliterated.
In liberating roles
But as he has shown multiple times in IPL, especially in the 2020 edition, he could be a remarkable destroyer, capable of wondrous power-hitting down the ground. Jadeja looks unstoppable when he looks to hit straight, rather than swiping across the line, looking to muscle through the leg side, which brought his downfall against Pakistan. When flaying straight, he gets into tremendous positions, the bat-swing is fluent, the head is still, he generates considerable power and finds the perfect placement. Give him freedom and it may not be too long before he harnesses his under-utilised white-ball batting potential.
Just as a destroyer than enforcer role could liberate Pandya’s bowling. Pandya’s bowling has, of late, downgraded to third-fourth seamer status, able to block up an end and, when the ball swung and seamed, take useful wickets. Perhaps this was because his body could not endure the rigours of bowling at full pelt.
On Sunday he bowled like peak Pandya, a throwback to his 50-over debut in Dharamshala where he bowled with the fire and feistiness of a genuine pacer, when he purchased both bounce and zip, when he hurried batsmen. “He can bowl really quickly, we saw that today with those short balls. It was always about just understanding his game and he’s doing that well now,” Rohit Sharma would observe.
Against Pakistan, he was the quickest and sharpest of the four bowlers. He purchased more bounce than Avesh Khan and coaxed as much movement as Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Like Jadeja, he would be thrust into various duties with the bat—could be a pinch-hitter up the order, or a finisher down the order. It is often said that a quality all-rounder—one who can bat in the top six and and would also be selected separately as a front-line bowler—can make the 11-member team look like a 12-member one. Playing against India with a peak Jadeja and Pandya would be akin to combatting 13 players.
Besides, in common with many champion cricketers, their contributions defy raw numbers, defined instead by the classic unquantifiables of timing, showmanship, athleticism, calmness under pressure and an uncanny ability to pick up key wickets and wickets.
They can make things happen—produce a wicket from nowhere, manage boundaries from nowhere, affect a run-out or pluck a blinder. Nothing frazzles them—they could hit the winning runs in the last over; they could pick the vital wickets in the last over too.
The self-assurance is mind-boggling. Just sample this remark from Pandya when asked about scoring six runs off the last three balls: “We only needed 7 off the last over but even if we needed 15, I’d have fancied myself. I know the bowler is under more pressure than me in the 20th over.” That sums up the essence of his cricketing soul—undaunted and uninhibited. In a similar situation, Jadeja’s response too would have been the same.
You can’t measure this sort of talent or plot it on a graph. But it is talent nonetheless, and one borne of personality as much as persistence, of temperament as much as technique. A combination of virtues that could decide tournaments.