The Hardik Pandya dilemma

The Hardik Pandya dilemma

All-rounder’s inability to bowl and struggles with the bat expose India’s lack of vision for big events

Hardik Pandya was supposed to lend balance to the team but his presence in the 11 has thrown it off-balance as he is neither scoring runs nor bowling due to fitness issues. AP/PTI

The Hardik Pandya issue was bound to come back to haunt India at some stage of their T20 World Cup campaign. It took just one drubbing, and the end of a proud streak against arch-rivals Pakistan, for that to transpire. Most selectorial decisions, either by the five wise men or the team management, are often criticised with the benefit of hindsight but in this instance, neither group can apportion the blame on critics for this was the most discussed topic in the run-up to the World Cup.

Despite being clubbed in a 'weaker' group, either by design or accident, India are in such a precarious situation that a second loss, on Sunday to New Zealand, could potentially end their cup dreams in Virat Kohli's swansong as the T20 captain. This again serves to highlight the lack of planning on the part of both the team management and the selectors for crucial positions, and not for the first time.

India paid a heavy price for not having groomed a No. 4 batsman for the 2019 World Cup where they crashed out in the semifinal, at the hands of New Zealand. The No. 4 position is a crucial one in a 50-over game as its occupant will have to either repair an innings if there's early damage or provide the impetus at the back-end if there's a good platform. It’s a role one has to grow into, get comfortable with, not be thrust into overnight on a wing and a prayer. India’s decision to evict Ambati Rayudu and take a punt on the three-dimensional Vijay Shankar backfired spectacularly.

In T20s, the equivalent of the No. 4 in ODI cricket is the No. 6 or no. 7 batsman who can whack the ball from the moment he walks in, with just a few overs left. On tracks such as those that have been on offer in the UAE, totals of 165-170 force the opposition to make the play and commit mistakes in the process. India’s 10-wicket hammering at the hands of Pakistan was surprising, but the target of 152 was far from safe. The Pakistani openers never felt the scoreboard pressure once there were no early scares and went about their job in clinical fashion, with the dew hampering India's bowlers besides providing better batting conditions.       

Between 2019 and 2021, the selection panel has undergone a total overhaul but the team management is pretty much the same – only, Vikram Rathour has replaced Sanjay Bangar as the batting coach. It’s clear to see where the buck stops in the failure to identify and groom at least a couple of players for the ‘finisher’s role occupied with aplomb for long periods by MS Dhoni. With Pandya missing loads of cricket post the 2019 World Cup through injury, they ought to have shown the vision to address this issue instead of sweating over it in the middle of the tournament. 

“We strongly feel that we can make the most of the opportunity at hand till the time he starts bowling," Kohli had said on the eve of the Pakistan game, in reference to Pandya’s absence from the bowling crease from the time the World Cup squad was announced. At the time, chief selector Chetan Sharma insisted that he would bowl all four overs in every match (we can only assume that he meant Pandya would be available to bowl all four overs). Clearly, there is a disconnect between the selectors and the think-tank, which has short-changed India’s prospects.

“What he (Pandya) brings at that No. 6 spot is something you cannot create overnight,” Kohli had added, reiterating the lack of wisdom of putting all the eggs in one basket.

Quick-fix, band-aid arrangements will not work in global tournaments, which necessitate long-term vision and astute planning and preparation. Take the 2003 World Cup, for example. Sourav Ganguly and John Wright worked out that for the sake of balance, depth, class and efficacy, India would be best served by Rahul Dravid keeping wickets and shoring up the middle-order. Dravid didn’t just don the gloves at the World Cup, he assumed the role a good year and a half ahead of the mega event.

It was no surprise that he was excellent behind the stumps and productive in front of it, his 318 runs the third highest for India behind Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly. Dravid might not resonate with ‘finisher’, but he was not out enough times in finishing off run-chases to end up with a team-high average of 63, not least against Pakistan and New Zealand, both in Centurion when the matches were poised on a knife-edge.

The current situation is not too dissimilar to 2007, when Greg Chappell made the late call that Tendulkar should bat at No. 4 at the World Cup in the West Indies because of his ability to adapt better than anyone to the slow, low surfaces there. There might have been logic to that thinking but the player and the coach were not on the same page, and Tendulkar wasn’t amused that the call wasn’t made until the start of the year, with the tournament just a few months away.

The current Pandya imbroglio is reminiscent of the confusion of 2007. His batting has been scratchy right from the IPL and he is yet to bowl competitively. The 'all-rounder' was supposed to lend much-needed balance. Ironically, his very presence has thrown the team off-balance. There is no dependable sixth-bowling option, nor is there confidence in his run-making skills, notwithstanding the captain’s 'unshakeable' faith in the Baroda player. 

With questions being raised about Pandya’s utility to the team following the loss to Pakistan, he bowled for about 20 minutes in the 'nets'. But you don't win matches consistently with players who, as Kohli pointed out, are forced to do something that their body isn't capable of. Pandya is no AB de Villiers, but India will settle for the best version of Pandya. Desperately so.

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