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The perennial search for the Indian all-rounder

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Hardik_Pandya_India_cricketIndia is in the middle of one of its longest home cricket seasons. They have already hosted New Zealand for 3 Tests and 5 ODIs, winning them 3-0 and 3-2 respectively. India now hosts England for a 5 Test series followed by 3 ODIs and 3 T20Is. The Brits are going to be in India for 3 months.

Due to injury, India had to leave out KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Rohit Sharma for the first 2 Tests. Despite the injury watch, not many expected surprise picks for the series. Nevertheless, the selectors bowled a googly in the form of Hardik Pandya. Pandya, whose claim to fame was a whirlwind knock against Chennai Super Kings for his IPL side Mumbai Indians in the 2015 edition of the tournament.

Ever since then, he was on the radar and his Syed Mushtaq Ali exploits couldn’t come at a better time. He led the run-tally, scoring 377 runs at a strike rate of 130.90 to go with 10 wickets in the tournament. He received his maiden call-up for India’s T20 series in Australia, edging past Rishi Dhawan, Stuart Binny and even his Baroda captain Irfan Pathan who was the leading wicket taker with 17 wickets at an average of 15.76 to go with 200 runs at a strike rate of 152.67. Pathan had come close to making yet another comeback, but it was Pandya’s time to shine.

He had a decent run with the Indian team as they won the Australia series 3-0, followed by a 2-1 victory against Sri Lanka at home and the Asia Cup in Bangladesh. His moment of the year came in the World T20 played at home. In a tight group game against Bangladesh, Pandya defended 10 runs in the final over of the game while Bangladeshi batsmen had a cumulative brain fade, failing to score 2 runs from the last 3 balls. Hardik Pandya suddenly became a sensation. Was India’s search for a genuine pace bowling all-rounder finally coming to an end?

It wasn’t meant to be, with a semi-final loss against the West Indies. A very lacklustre performance through the IPL cost him a national call-up for the series in Zimbabwe in June 2016. Many thought that it might be time for Pandya to go back to basics and play a couple of more seasons in the Ranji trophy before trying to make a comeback.

By October 2016, Pandya received a call-up for the ODIs against New Zealand. He opened the bowling and claimed the prized wicket of Martin Guptill. He showed improvement by pitching the ball up rather than bowling it short. That he regularly bowled in the 140kph range only added to his armoury. He batted decently in the 2nd ODI before a rush of blood got the better of him. The remaining two ODIs weren’t too special and he was dropped for the final game. In the midst of all this, it was the recently appointed India coach Anil Kumble who said that Hardik should express himself, backing the 22 year old’s selection for the upcoming series.

 

It is heartening that India are looking to back a young all-rounder in Tests. Pandya is only the 2nd pace bowling all-rounder India have picked since Irfan Pathan was shown the door apart from Stuart Binny.

Ever since Kapil Dev retired, India have struggled to find a long-term pace bowling all-rounder. Robin Singh, Reetinder Singh Sodhi, JP Yadav, Abhishek Nayar, Stuart Binny etc. have all been bits and pieces players India has tried in ODIs. Irfan Pathan who mesmerized one and all with his bowling, had some small success with the bat too. Multiple injuries and a drop in pace substantially affected his game.

Around the world, sides crave for a pace bowling all-rounder. They crave the luxury of having a batsman who can get you those extra overs & pick those vital wickets or a bowler who can hold his own with the bat. That is any captain’s dream. Jacques Kallis, Andrew Flintoff, Shane Watson, Chris Cairns have proven a quality all-rounder in the longest format of the game can win you games both with the bat and the ball.

In the limited overs format, there has been a lot more success for all-rounders. The current lot of all-rounders include James Faulkner, Ben Stokes, Corey Anderson & Angelo Mathews who have all come good for their respective national teams. India, however, still hasn’t found someone who can be called a world class all-rounder.

 

Such has been India’s dearth of all-rounders that Rohit Sharma once stated that if he bowled medium pacers it would help his captain rotate bowlers in the longer format of the game. There has not been any update on whether Sharma can finally bowl pace-ups and relieve his captain’s pressure to get through 10-12 overs in a day of a Test match.

The problem for an all-rounder arises from the grass-root level. Indian pitches are not conducive for fast bowling. Hence, a lot of batsmen who can bowl prefer bowling spin. In their formative years as cricketer, a lot of stress is put on excelling in one aspect of the game i.e. either batting or bowling. If you can do both, it is considered to be a luxury. Add to that the competition: fighting for a spot against specialist batsmen who can be used as part-time spinners has hurt the morale of upcoming all-rounders.

However, it doesn’t mean that an all-rounder should be picked just because his ability to do both. Harsha Bhogle once said that an all-rounder in the truest sense is a player who can be picked for either of his aspects of the game. While Pandya might still be a bits and pieces player, he should seek solace in the national coach openly backing him to do well. Even VVS Laxman has said that Pandya can open the bowling with Shami, allowing India to play an extra batsman. In the wake of injuries to their front-line batsmen, India might look to strengthen the batting department by playing Pandya.

Hardik Pandya should be patient and follow the lead of Amit Mishra who had been brilliant in the ODI series against New Zealand. He has surely made his case; considering both Ashwin and Jadeja are decent enough batters, India have the freedom to go for a three-pronged spin attack.

A Test cap in the near future is not certain for Pandya, but backing him might give him and his fellow all-rounders some confidence. Hardik Pandya might not be India’s answer to Jacques Kallis, who Pandya emulates, but the intent to find a seaming all-rounder assures the team’s fans that at least they are looking in the right direction.

 

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