“I want to be a big match-winner for the team”.

The extremely flamboyant Rohit Sharma sounded pumped before the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle. He was back in the Test squad after a frustrating injury break. He had scored three fifties in successive Tests before his hamstring injury. He has always wanted to stamp his authority on the longest format in the game.

And then the captain Virat Kohli decided to play Hardik Pandya in his place.

Pandya over Rohit

It was a decision which raised a few eyebrows. Pandya is a gifted all-rounder, quite clearly enjoys the backing of the team management (but then Sharma also enjoys Kohli’s backing) and has already done quite well in the limited overs formats. But his chops in the longest format weren’t the greatest – his batting average in only 17 matches in first-class cricket is 27, his bowling average is 35. Was he ready for the hard yards?

That last question is going to persist for a while but the one thing the 23-year-old all-rounder showed in his first display on the second day of the first Test in Galle on Thursday is that he’s not going to be throwing this opportunity away easily.

Coming in at No 8, Pandya scored a debut 50 off just 49 balls. Now it would be fair to say that he didn’t have the most difficult time out in the middle – when he came in to bat, the score was already a formidable 491/6 and he had license to swing. That he did in admirable style, taking on Sri Lanka’s bowlers with five boundaries and three booming sixes in a debut 49-ball 50.

The debut he’d have wanted

But even in that brief foray, certain aspects made for pleasant viewing.

The fact that he thought nothing about charging down the track against a certain Rangana Herath and smashing his first ball in Test cricket for a four. The fact that he had a slow start (at one stage, he was 4 off 13 balls) and had a catch dropped at slip, did not faze him.

The fact that he faced up to Sri Lanka’s bouncer barrage continuously, pulling with sustained disdain, to the point that the bowlers finally gave up and focused on the batsman at the other end. And finally the fact that, unlike Ravindra Jadeja who is a bit of a hit-and-miss with the bat, he forged a good understanding with tail-enders Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav to swell India’s score.

One fifty does not a summer make. But it is a bright start for one of India’s once-in-a-generation talents. A player like Hardik Pandya doesn’t come around all too often. He is a fiery fast bowler, an incredibly big-hitting batsman and one of the sharpest fielders going around. Pandya is fired-up, energetic, not cowed by the big occasion.

In India, we often criticise selection panels for playing safe and not going for experience. In going for Pandya over Rohit Sharma, Kohli has been ultra-aggressive and he needs to be lauded.

Pandya sweeps en route his debut half-century. (Image credit: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)
Pandya sweeps en route his debut half-century. (Image credit: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Balance, balance, balance

If Pandya can become an integral member of India’s starting XI, he will provide the kind of balance that India have long been hunting for. As the third seamer, he ensures India can always go in with two front-line attacking pacers. As a talented batsman, he solves the conundrum of the No 6 spot. That would mean India will not have to think about dropping a spinner or a batsman when they want to go in with three bowlers on pace-friendly pitches.

And if not in Sri Lanka, pace-friendly pitches will certainly arrive when India tour South Africa later this year and England next. In earlier tours, India have grappled with playing extra batsmen or spinners – invariably disturbing the team balance. But, Pandya along with the much-improved Ravichandran Ashwin is as good as it can get for the lower middle-order. Throw in Jadeja on the day he fires and you have a wide array of options on any pitch in the world.

Instead of bringing Pandya into the mix in the middle of a tough overseas tour, which would have been extremely unfair on him, India have done the right thing. Let him adapt, understand and adjust to Test cricket. If he comes good, he will carry the confidence to tougher climes which Kohli self-admittedly wants to conquer. And as the 23-year-old showed in his brief say, he surely has the mental toughness to take on the responsibility.