If Hardik Pandya was dismissed early, India would have spent the rest of this South African tour in awe of the four-man pace attack. That much is certain. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri would have spoken with confidence but the impact of the collapse would have haunted them. The ‘new and improved’ India would have crumbled into the deep alleyways of the mind and met the ‘old and beaten’ version.
In Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada, South Africa possess one of the finest pace bowling attacks in world cricket at the moment. And for the longest time, India were under their spell. The visitors spent time in the middle but scored no runs for most of the first hour (13 overs, 17 runs) on day two and when wickets started to fall, it looked like India might be bowled out for under 100.
Pandya struggled initially as well. Steyn, in particular, had his number. He played and missed a number of times. And it looked like only a matter of time before before the right-hander would join his team-mates in the dressing room. If Dean Elgar had held on to a chance — when Pandya was on 15 — it might well have happened as well.
But the dropped chance seemed to rouse the 24-year-old into action — he decided to take the attack to the home team and in doing so, he forced them to change their plans for the first time in the match. A few of the slips were taken out, a fielder (AB de Villiers) was placed virtually behind the keeper to account for the upper cut, point went to deep point and square leg went to deep square leg. The bowlers also lost their discipline, which didn’t seem likely up until that point. The highest praise to Pandya is that it would be accurate to say that he managed to do to South Africa what de Villiers did to India.
The knock was amazing because he stuck to his game. It was unorthodox shot-making but then again, that is Pandya. He didn’t try to do something extraordinary and for most part, kept his eye on the big picture — that of getting India back in the game. He respected the pacers early on but then started taking his chances.
In many ways, this is what it means to play your natural game. When they talk of intent, they need to show this innings to other batsmen too.
When the 50-run partnership between Pandya and Bhuvneshwar came up, the latter’s contribution was just 2 runs. It showed just how he dictated play. So dominant was Pandya that skipper Faf du Plessis decided to introduce spinner Keshav Maharaj into the attack. The change of pace almost worked.
The first ball was hit for two, the second was flighted and smacked for six over mid-wicket. Maharaj wasn’t deterred though, he tossed up the third delivery too. Pandya was out of his crease in a flash but the ball turned and bounced to beat the bat, Luckily, it beat de Kock as well and the stumping opportunity went abegging. Pandya was on 71 at this point.
Change of tactics
After the tea break, South Africa changed tactics. Morkel and Rabada went around the wicket and attacked Pandya with a short-ball barrage. It wasn’t exactly as venomous as the West Indies attacks of old but clearly the idea was to take the upper cut out of the equation and reduce his scoring opportunities.
Pandya still found a way to score but once Bhuvneshwar departed, he got more desperate. He was running out of partners.
It also didn’t help that a short ball from Rabada thudded into his midriff. It left Pandya on his knees and he was still rubbing his sore tummy an over later when he was dismissed just seven short of what would have been a brilliant counter-attacking century.
To put his innings into perspective, see the following numbers:
Hardik Pandya: 93 off 95 balls (SR 97.89), 14 fours, 1 six
All others: 102 off 347 balls (SR 29.39), 16 fours
Some might argue that Pandya led a charmed life but it’s what you do with the chances that counts. The right-hander helped bring his side back into the match and his 93 runs were worth their weight in gold.
He wasn’t done for the day though. He came on to bowl later in the day and claimed the wickets of both the South African openers.
Today, Pandya would have grown as a Test cricketer. This was also the kind of innings, you expect your allrounder to play.
It was a performance that showcased not just his cricketing acumen but also his spirit. He has proved to be the X-factor that India so desperately sought, he has been the trump card that South Africa had no answer for.
He may not be Kapil Dev but we’ll take Pandya just the way he is.
For now, he’s more than good enough.
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