Wrap Hardik Pandya in Cotton Wool if World Cups Are Your Target
In Hardik Pandya, India have found the all-rounder they were looking for for decades.
For close to 26 years now, India has been struggling to get over this. It has been the longest running soap opera, not on television but a cricket field.
‘Finding the next Kapil Dev’, has been the favourite programme for all cricket lovers and those in the ecosystem just because of how big and massive the soap opera can be.
We have had a number of pretenders to play the title role over the years that it is now getting a bit exhausting to decide on the main cast. But finally, after 26 years of searching far and wide, it seems that for a while the chase can halt at one man, Hardik Pandya.
The Baroda boy has emerged as the unlikeliest of claimants to the role which has been lying vacant over the years.
“Hardik Pandya, with an average of nearly 90, has emerged as India's go to batsman in white ball cricket, behind Virat Kohli. Time is ripe for Hardik to be added to the Test squad, in this red-hot form worth holding him back in Australia,” tweeted former India batsman Mohammad Kaif.
This ongoing Australia tour has shown just how crucial Pandya is to India’s fortunes in white ball cricket. He has batted with a sledge hammer, struck big sixes on the massive Australian grounds and has fielded quite brilliantly. In the outfield, where even Kohli has struggled to hold onto the catches, Pandya has been able to pick up catches. So in two of the three disciplines, Pandya has struck gold.
The only aspect of his cricket which is still to touch full potential, bowling, is still work in progress. He has struggled to bowl having not achieved bowling fitness as yet and has thus far struggled to get going. The only sign of him returning to bowling came in the second ODI against Australia when he bowled four overs.
You can still see him at times holding his back, especially after he hit one of the sixes in the final over of the second T20I. He is still feeling the after effects of playing top flight international cricket after a big gap and the major back surgery which kept him away from action.
India must do a lot to ensure that he is preserved from burnout and is wrapped in cotton wool much like a fast bowler. In many ways both Pandya, and to some extent Jasprit Bumrah, need to be looked after smartly by India by not exposing them too much.
Pandya has rightly chosen to stay away from the longer form of cricket for a while because while it is easier to stretch himself in white ball formats, with the red ball he may find it a bit much to handle. There is no doubt whatsoever that a fit again Pandya who can bowl and bat will be a tremendous asset for India.
Imagine the problems he solves for India at number six and as a crucial support bowler. No one has forgotten just how he bowled India to a famous win at Nottingham in 2018 on that ill-fated England series which was handed on a platter to the host 1-4.
Since that series, Pandya has not been seen in whites for India.
After that England tour, Pandya fell down while bowling during the Asia Cup in Dubai and things have never been the same. He got banned for his comments on ‘Koffee with Karan’ and he looked chastened after the experience.
He did make a return as an all-rounder in time for the World Cup in 2019. India put enough pressure on him and anointed him as the fourth seamer in the side.
However, post the World Cup he has had a surgery and he took it a lot easier than before to make a return to India colours. In between, marriage and fatherhood seems to have calmed him down a bit.
This phase two in Pandya’s career could just be what India needs as it heads into a crucial three year phase with two T20 World Cups and one 50 over World Cup scheduled to be held. India needs an all-rounder to balance the line-up. This can at the moment only mean Pandya. Hence it is crucial that Kohli take charge along with head coach Ravi Shastri to manage Pandya’s workload.
They need to ensure that Pandya is not over stretched by playing him in Test cricket when he is still not ready to bowl. He will take some more time to strengthen himself and get prepared for the rigours of the longer format. If push comes to shove considering the workload in the white ball formats, India must look beyond Pandya as an all-rounder in red ball cricket. Instead, India should let Pandya focus just on the white ball formats.
His skills as a striker, finisher, fielder and as a useful bowler will be crucial to India’s chances in the three World Cups.
But the mistake India should not make is put all the eggs in one basket. While Pandya is emerging as a match-winner in his own right, the search for an additional or more than one all-rounder or should we say dual purpose player should continue. The Income Tax department has confirmed that there will be no tax levied for having more than one seam bowler cum batsman in your squad.
It could be anyone who could emerge in the next year or so. There are multiple domestic tournaments and there are also multiple Indian Premier League (IPL) seasons in the offing. So there will be lots of opportunities for everyone to stake their claim. Vijay Shankar, Shivam Dube and Kamlesh Nagarkoti have been the other contenders for the additional roles. But we have been a bit too impatient with them.
They need not be part of the ongoing soap opera of ‘Finding the next Kapil Dev’. There was only one Kapil Dev and every new cricketer is their own version, not a cheap imitation.
(Chandresh Narayanan is a former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and the former media manager of Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, a Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.)
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