India in Sri Lanka 2017

Neither Kapil Dev, nor Ben Stokes: Hardik Pandya is steadily chalking out his own identity

The Indian team management (captains and selectors) have handled Pandya very well.

Scene One: A robust youngster flew down to Australia to make his Twenty20 International debut in January 2016. It had been a heady rise for him, playing in the IPL and making everyone aware of his raw talent. Surprisingly enough, he made the cut and was picked for the first game of the three-match series. When MS Dhoni finally handed him the ball though, as the fifth bowler, he was smacked for runs. It was apparent that he was a bundle of nerves, yet there was a unique fish-to-water quality about him.

Scene Two: Nearly 20 months later, playing his third-ever Test, he smashed his maiden hundred off 86 balls. The second 50 runs came off only 25 balls, inclusive of a 26-run over where he smacked Malinda Pushpakumara for three sixes and two fours. It resonated with many Indian fans who had seen such an onslaught in the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan as well.

Each of these moments have identified a different, almost re-iterated version of Hardik Pandya. If Adelaide was the raw version, in Pallekele, Pandya 3.0 – a bulked-up, confident all-rounder – came to the fore. And, India have waiting for him to turn up in such fashion.

Not been smooth sailing

Pandya’s personal growth as a cricketer, someone who was very aware that he could fill the all-rounder shaped hole in every Indian line-up across formats, has been notable along with a growing understanding in his game.

Ahead of the 2016 World T20, you could see the dynamism that made him an IPL star. And yet towards the end of that tournament in March though, he was starting to lag behind the natural progression curve. Where he stands today is almost an end to the process of recovering himself from that downward curve. Getting dropped from the Zimbabwe tour last summer, and then left out from the West Indies’ trip too, perhaps both dented his thinking process.

It is at this juncture another aspect comes to the fore – in how the team management (including selectors, different coaches across formats and levels, and indeed how different captains) handled him.

Carefully moulded

Dropped from the senior team last summer, he was in Australia with India-A under Rahul Dravid’s tutelage. Word is he was told precisely what went wrong for him, and how he could rectify it. After all, Dravid knows no other way than give a sincere opinion. Pandya now has an improved fitness and strengthening regime

Following that advice was necessary not only for his power-hitting but bowling long spells in ODI and Test cricket as well.

That last bit is important, because even when away from the senior side, Pandya was still very aware of what he brings to the Indian team’s table. This maturity is a vital cog in how the wheel turned once again for him, and he found himself not only making his ODI debut in Dharamsala in October last year, but also opening the bowling in friendly conditions against New Zealand.

Across formats, the journey of inclusion has been the same – an eagerness on part of the team management to pick him in the playing eleven as soon as possible. From T20Is to ODIs to Tests though, the process of preparation – let us call it ‘incubation period’ – has been different.

It has been the longest yet in Tests, when he was picked in the squad for the England series but wasn’t selected for any game. The requirement was different back then, as India picked Jayant Yadav to play the all-rounder role.

Here, in Sri Lanka, Virat Kohli remembered when he had fiddled around with Stuart Binny’s selection in the 2015 series. “There is no point waiting for later in the series,” the skipper said pre-match in Galle, before handing Pandya his Test cap.

Grabbing his chance

When Pandya walked out to bat at no.8 in the first Test in Galle, it was a bit surprising. The obvious question was in asking why wasn’t he batting ahead of R Ashwin or Wriddhiman Saha already. This is where the team management’s plan regarding Pandya comes into further prominence.

Like in the case of Ashwin at No. 6 or Saha at No.7, Pandya has been allocated a spot in the batting order that suits his strengths. He has not been forced into adapting his game as per the requirements of Test cricket. In fact, he has been given a licence to do the exact opposite – assimilate the match situation as per your attacking instinct.

It was amply displayed in the manner he scored an attacking maiden half-century in the first Test, and then again when he was out caught in the second Test at Colombo, attacking, letting out a cry of frustration that it didn’t work for a second consecutive time.

Of course it didn’t work – Test cricket isn’t easy. It is not slam-bang, where you just turn up and change the course of the game in the blink of an eye.

This second morning in Pallekele was Pandya’s trial-by-fire in that strictest sense, thus. As India struggled for the first time in the series at overnight score of 329/6, much depended on how Pandya would fare at the crease.

Not just slam bang

This is where his first 50 runs, coming off 61 balls, gain much more significance. Until then, he only had six (5 fours and 1 six) hits to the fence. It was about settling down and playing for time, before he could farm strike with the tail. It was about altering his game, for once, and batting as per the situation, something he says he has learned from Dhoni.

Pandya has ticked a lot of boxes in this series, but this changeover in batting approach in the first half of his innings on Sunday is quintessentially the most vital of them all. In doing so, he has thumbed his nose at quite a few people. Some of them have called him Kapil Dev re-incarnate; others – including his captain – have deemed him to be India’s Ben Stokes. He is neither.

Instead, Pandya is chalking out his own identity.

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