That’s how Hardik Pandya was billed, heading into this tour of South Africa. Everyone who was asked for an opinion was saying - former cricketers, analysts, writers. Rahul Dravid said it before leaving for New Zealand with his Under-19 boys as well.
The hype, as is almost always the case with Pandya, was real.
And when the first innings of the first Test came to an end, there was a feeling that Pandya was starting to live up to it. A blistering counterattack at Newlands, saw his stocks rise once again. But since then, the great leveller that cricket is, Pandya’s tour was oscillating between ordinary and utterly forgettable. His batting has seemingly deteriorated as the tour has progressed, as evidenced by the numbers.
In Tests: 93, 1, 15, 6, 0, 4
In ODIs: 3*, 14, 19, 0
But that’s the thing about all-rounders. Well, the good ones anyway. They are never truly out of the game.
Even as he was struggling to adapt to the South African conditions with the bat - conditions that far better batsmen have failed to conquer, it’s worth remembering - he has stepped up with the white ball in his hand.
The first three ODIs where Kedar Jadhav was bowling his round-arm, below-sea-level deliveries, it did not feel like Kohli will use Pandya’s full quota of 10 overs in this series. But the injury to Jadhav opened up an opportunity for Pandya - and like good cricketers do, he has grabbed it.
Consider this: In the fourth ODI in Jo’burg, when bad weather stopped play during South Africa’s run-chase and reduced the innings to 28 overs, Virat Kohli found himself in an interesting situation, with 7.2 overs already bowled. Bhuvi and Bumrah had bowled four each & could bowl two more with three bowlers allowed to bowl six. Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal were going to bowl a minimum 11 between them which meant Pandya absolutely had to bowl five overs - he was the easiest target for the South African batsmen to go after.
As it turned out, Chahal and Kuldeep were taken to the cleaners and India lost the match. But Kohli gained a confident bowler in Pandya. His 1/37 kept India in the match - it helps when the solitary wicket you get is that of AB de Villiers (in the pink ODI, that too). Even in defeat, Pandya impressed under pressure.
In Port Elizabeth in the fifth ODI, he had once again failed with the bat, a first-ball-duck, no less. Kohli was once again without the services of a recognised sixth bowler. India were once again short of their expected first innings score, thanks to a late failure. The pressure was once again on Pandya to deliver with the ball and this time he had to bowl the 10 overs.
And, once again, Pandya turned in a mighty impressive spell - finishing with figures of 2/30. The icing on the cake? De Villiers’ wicket for the second match in a row.
It’s fair to say, despite Kuldeep and Chahal sharing six wickets between them, Pandya’s wicket of de Villiers and his direct hit to run Hashim Amla out by the finest of margins, were the two decisive moments in the match that handed India a famous series win. Pandya even finished the day with a one-handed reflex catch (after some poor communication with his fellow fielder) - a more-than-acceptable ending to a match that started for him with a golden duck.
Rohit Sharma touched upon Pandya’s influence specifically after the game:
“Hardik has come a long way since he made his debut. He understands now what the team expects from him. He is a proper all-rounder, not a batsman who can bowl or a bowler who can bat. But a proper all-rounder and we expect him to come out and bowl 10 overs all the time (...) Hardik, special mention to him, the way he came out and bowled, got crucial breakthroughs. It will give him confidence going forward.
Pandya is the kind of cricketer who will always have doubters. ‘He’s too flashy.’ ‘He seems too full of himself.’ ‘Next Kapil Dev? Pffft!’
But he is also the kind of cricketer who backs himself under pressure and knows an opportunity when he sees one. And, as Shaun Pollock pointed out, Pandya will get a long rope from Kohli just for that attitude.
“I clearly get the impression that Virat Kohli loves Hardik Pandya’s attitude,” said the former South African skipper and a man who knows a thing or two about being a good all-rounder. “It’s very similar to the way Kohli plays his cricket. And because he loves that attitude there is a good chance that Pandya will get a long run in the side, to settle himself and cement his spot in the team. That’s the nature of cricket if the captain likes the way a player goes about his business then that player will get an extra run (of opportunities).”
Failures will come along the way, and that’s where Pollock’s comments are crucial - Pandya has a captain who evidently backs him to the hilt. That is why, when Jadhav got injured, he trusted his all-rounder enough to not bring in another bowling option.
And with the ball in his hand, it was not Pandya being his flashy self. This was not him creaming bowlers out of the ground. This was no counter-attacking masterclass that will be remembered for a long time.
This was just a bowler turning up for his captain and doing the job asked of him - hitting the right lengths, bowling the cutters, keeping things tight.
This was, the man with the X-Factor, doing the ABCs right.