At Sydney Cricket Ground on Friday, Hardik Pandya simultaneously emerged as India’s biggest positive as well as a possible contributor to the opening One Day International defeat against Australia.

With a career-best ODI score of 90, Pandya played an impressive innings on his return to the ODI side after the World Cup in 2019. But, in the analysis of the result, Virat Kohli found an answer to one question that India were faced with before the match while there was another that proved elusive.

Question answered

Pandya, walking in to bat at 101/4 in the 14th over, stayed in the middle till 247/6 in the 39th over. In the process, the 27-year-old faced 76 balls for his brilliant 90, which included seven fours and four sixes.

When the playing XI was confirmed by Kohli at the toss the question that was on many a lip was whether Hardik Pandya is a good option as a specialist batsman in the Indian side. Was he good enough to pip the likes of Shubman Gill or Manish Pandey, just on his batting skills, if he was not going to bowl?

Going by the evidence of what we witnessed during the course of the Indian Premier League and on the day at SCG in the first ODI, the answer must be an emphatic yes.

It is not just the good numbers that Pandya has returned with that bat that leads one to make that conclusion, it’s the manner in which he bats these days. There is an assurance in the way he goes about an innings, whether it is in the death overs for Mumbai Indians or when he has to bat in the middle overs of a T20 or ODI. He targets the bowlers he can go after, he targets areas of the ground where he is strong at. The improved decision-making with the bat, was evident during his partnership with Shikhar Dhawan as the senior pro took a back seat and let Pandya set the tempo.

Most importantly, with the game all but lost even when Dhawan got out, Pandya chose not to just stick around in the middle as long as possible, and instead targetted Adam Zampa for yet another six. It was a match-up he was enjoying and he backed himself to keep the run-chase alive.

And, finally, it was the ODI innings where has faced the most deliveries in his career so far, not just his highest score.

Most balls faced in an innings by Hardik in ODI

Match date Runs Balls faced SR Batting # Opposition Ground
27 Nov 2020 90 76 118.42 6 Australia Sydney
24 Sep 2017 78 72 108.33 4 Australia Indore
17 Sep 2017 83 66 125.75 7 Australia Chennai
9 Jul 2019 32 62 51.61 6 New Zealand Manchester
22 Jan 2017 56 43 130.23 7 England Kolkata
via ESPNCricinfo

Question unanswered

Well, let’s set that aside.

Moving on to the result itself, India lost the match at SCG on Friday by 66 runs. Never mind that Australia scored 374 and India made a fist of it for a while, that’s a margin indicative of the comfort with which the hosts closed the game out.

And there is a reason why Pandya’s popped up in Kohli’s analysis post-match.

“We have to find out a way to get a few overs from part-timers. Unfortunately, someone like Hardik is not ready to bowl yet, we have to accept that, we don’t really have all-round options as such right now,” he said.

Later on, Pandya said he has been bowling during practice. But, given the nature of his injury issues with the back, it’s become obvious that India (and Indians) are wrapping him up in cotton wool as far as bowing is concerned.

“I want to be at 100% of my bowling capacity. I want to bowl at speeds that are required at the international level,” said the all-rounder, adding that he has started bowling in the nets.

“We are thinking long term. We are thinking about the T20 World Cup and other important tournaments where my bowling will be of even more importance.”

And in an analysis that summed up why India are struggling in ODIs with the ball at the moment, Pandya made no bones about the fact that there is a problem without a solution in sight.

“I think, maybe, we will have to find someone who has already played India and groom them and find a way to make them play,” he said.

“It is always going to be difficult when you go with five bowlers, because then if somebody is having an off day, you won’t have someone to fulfill (that role),” he said about a collective flop-show by the Indian bowling.

“.....more than injury, it is about the sixth bowler’s role. If someone is having a bad day, so the other guys gets more cushion.”

Ultimately, Pandya doing well with the bat is still a big plus for India, but if he’s not bowling in the short term, India are left with a lop-sided team where there are six batsmen, one Ravindra Jadeja, and four No 11’s that make up the last four.

And, in the last six away ODIs, that has showed in the results. India have lost games every time they have had only five bowlers operating in an innings.

India's last six away ODIs

Match Overs bowled / Bowlers used Bowling inns Result
1st ODI in AUS 50.0 / 5 1 Lost
3rd ODI in NZ 47.1 / 5 2 Lost
2nd ODI in NZ 50.0 / 5 Lost
1st ODI in NZ 48.1 / 5 2 Lost
3rd ODI in WI 35 (reduced) / 6 1 Won
2nd ODI in WI 42 / 6 2 Won
(Abandoned matches not included)

Sure, the sixth bowling option is not going to win you a match but it offers the cushion to the captain, knowing he can get an over or three out of someone if one of his main guys are having an off day.

Consider this: Yuzvendra Chahal walked off the field on Friday but he had finished his quota of overs by then. What if there was a situation where he hadn’t? In the 17-member squad India have at the moment, the only batsman who can roll his arm over is perhaps Kohli himself.

End of the day, Pandya stepped up as a batsman and delivered what was expected of him even if it was not enough on the day to take India past the finish line. But, if India continue to employ this strict five-bowler strategy, the squad is far too heavily dependent on the top three winning the match with the bat. The rigidity in the squad is a problem, but even more worryingly, one that has no evident solution in sight in the short term for captain Kohli.