When the Indian squad for the ODI series against New Zealand was announced by the MSK Prasad-led selection committee, some choices raised eyebrows. The selectors took some wise calls in resting Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami looking at the long home season ahead.
But the selection of Hardik Pandya over Stuart Binny appeared bizarre - after all, Pandya had been ineffective in the last year’s IPL, and the recent India A tour had not really helped him erase the IPL memories.
But in the first match of the series which was his ODI debut, Hardik vindicated his selection. In fact, he rose beyond his call of debutant duty like very few Indians have done in the past. In his seven-over spell, he took three important wickets to dismantle the Kiwis from the outset. He was energetic, confident about his ability and was constantly clocking 135 Kmph and even 140 occasionally.
Cut to India’s tour Down Under in early 2016. The young man from Baroda made his international debut in the Twenty-20 series against Australia. His heroics in the IPL and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy promised a lot and he did not disappoint. Since then, he has played all 16 T20 matches until the ICC T20 World Cup taking 15 wickets at an economy rate of a shade over eight.
But in the 2016 IPL, he struggled miserably to pick his length and bowling too short didn’t help his cause at all. In T20 cricket, where pulling and hooking are like bread and butter for the batters, Hardik was thwarted with élan. He was now susceptible and batsmen took a special liking towards him. His bat also kept quiet and he subsequently fell
However, a watershed moment arrived for Hardik when Bhuvneshwar Kumar got injured and Shami rested for the ODI series against New Zealand. Hardik received a reluctant go, but hardly would he have imagined that he will share the new ball ahead of Jasprit Bumrah. MS Dhoni sprung the cat out of the hat and it reaped rewards in the very first over.
In the first over of his ODI career, Kiwi opener Martin Guptill hit him for three fours off the first five deliveries. True, a couple of them were edges. Genuine ones. But it was sufficient for any debutant to be nervous and give up. But certainly, it was not the case for Hardik. In the final ball of the over, he put a gentle out-swinger that took the outside edge of Guptill’s bat to be safely grabbed by Rohit Sharma at second slip. The jubilation on his face made it clear how much it meant to him. He felt he had carved a new beginning for himself- a meatier one.
He constantly clocked more than 135 Kmph and the Kiwi batters looked tentative against him, especially the left-handers. He intimidated Kane Williamson by hitting the deck hard. Umesh Yadav was bowling with uncanny accuracy from one end and Pandya stayed calm from the other despite conceding the odd boundary in an over. He tried being in the dilemma zone more often than not hovering around the off pole. In the 11th over, Corey Anderson went for the flashy drive only for Umesh Yadav to complete a brilliant catch. Luke Ronchi also perished to Pandya and the debutant ended the day with match figures of 3/31. Not a bad start indeed.
In the pre-match press conference, MS Dhoni spoke about the road ahead for the Champions Trophy 2017 and how some proper experiments at this time to find the proper balance can lead India to a successful campaign. Jasprit Bumrah is a very good option in containing the flow of runs in the middle and slog overs. So, Dhoni played the master-stroke by opening the bowling with Pandya, and now with the first experiment having gone well, the Indian skipper would want him to keep up his rhythm for the games ahead.
Dhoni was full of praise for Pandya in the post-match press conference and said, “Basically, our thinking was to use him as one of our three seamers and to give him a chance to exploit the new ball. We all felt he is quite deceptive. He can bowl quick and he’s got movement. He can swing the ball even on wickets where some of the other bowlers don’t get that kind of swing. He’s still someone who can get purchase off the wicket, so we wanted to give him a go with the new ball.
We would like to see how he reacts to different situations and conditions, how quickly he can adapt to the conditions,” suggested Dhoni. “Let’s say, for example, if the series is 2-2 and it’s the fifth game of the series, then we’ll try to play the best XI. But I don’t see any reason if he keeps performing like how he did in this game, why he can’t be our first pick when it comes to our three fast bowlers.”
With the Champions Trophy just seven one-day games away (this series and the England series of 3 ODIs), Hardik can become an important link in the set-up. He can fill the void of a pace bowling all-rounder. If he succeeds in the near future, he has all the chance to get an extended run, even after the Champions Trophy. But for that reward, the Baroda all-rounder will have to keep pegging away in times to come.
Remember, he has played the first match at the pace-conducive track of Dharamsala. But the real test of patience and perseverance for Hardik will come when he bowls on belters and batting beauties. He has not bowled in the death or middle overs yet. He is yet to play a high-intensity game. These are the sample of things that he has to prove in order to climb to the top.
After the retirement of Kapil Dev, India has been, for a very long time, searching for a genuine pace bowling all-rounder. There was Ajit Agarkar, there was Irfan Pathan. But injury concerns and an inconsistent approach saw both of them not realising their full potential. With the positive approach with which Hardik got about his business in the first game, a hope has been rekindled for sure.
But, it is just the preface that has been written. The main plot and an indelible conclusion
Jason Holder or Bhuvneshwar Kumar? Who will take more wickets?
Since start of 2014, Holder has taken 59 wickets at an avg of 34 while Kumar has taken just 38 wickets at an avg of 43. Kumar picked 3 wickets last time he played vs WI at this ground.