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How can Dhoni best utilise Hardik Pandya?

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Hardik_Pandya_India_cricketHe bowls at sharp speeds, scored 34 in one over in a domestic T20 game, he’s lightning fast between the wickets, athletic in the field, and he’s actually Indian.

His name is Stuart Binny. That was clearly a joke. His name is Rishi Dhawan. Okay, it’s time to be serious. We’re talking about Hardik Himanshu Pandya. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s probably because you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months.

There wasn’t much enthusiasm surrounding his selection prior to the ongoing New Zealand ODI series. After all, he did endure a horrendous IPL 2016, in which he could only muster 44 runs in 9 innings, striking below 70. Even his predictable short-balls and slower bouncers could only fetch him 3 wickets across 11 games at economy rate of 9.18.

These performances are even more disappointing when you consider that they came on the back of his last-over heroics against Bangladesh. Did I say heroics? It was really just a monumental choke from Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur as they attempted glory shots instead of easy singles. Even the cynics, however, couldn’t help but marvel at the execution of that last ball, where MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya worked together like superhero and sidekick to deliver one of India’s most memorable T20 wins.

Then came the real shock: a semi-final exit to the eventual champions, West Indies. India was out-thought as much as they were outmuscled. Dhoni’s tactics were questionable, including his persistent use of his protégé, Pandya. It felt as if a teacher was excessively rewarding his favorite student.

It almost felt like déjà vu when the skipper handed his protégé the new ball in the first ODI against the Kiwis. But he was surprisingly brisk. He dismissed Guptill with a cracker that seamed in and straightened to take his outside edge. Dhoni was ecstatic. He knew he had unearthed a gem and could take some credit for Pandya’s improvement as a bowler.

Things started looking up for Pandya the batsman in the second ODI. A composed inning of 36 in partnership with a gutsy Umesh Yadav nearly guided India to an improbable win. It was a timely reminder that Pandya possesses considerable talent with the bat; talent that we witnessed in IPL 2015, where his strike rate of 180 was a standout among bigger Indian names.

This raises an important issue that we should not ignore. Is number 8 too low for Pandya? Dhoni seems set to bat at no.4, leaving the finisher’s job to younger players. This move should not be considered controversial, especially when you think of how often Dhoni has faltered in recent chases.

 

Pandya does have competition in the form of Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja, especially the latter who has been India’s regular number 7 in recent times. However, MS Dhoni needs to develop a relationship with the batting side of Hardik Pandya. Pandya, the bowler has improved and could be the real deal. But we’ve only seen trailers of him as a finisher, at least in international cricket. It’s quite surprising how often Dhoni has turned to Pandya with the ball, which makes you wonder why he doesn’t give him the same level of responsibility with the bat.  

Unlike Jadeja, who has never scored a T20 fifty, Pandya lit up the IPL in his first season, even outshining his batting partner, Kieron Pollard, during an unbeaten knock of 61*(31) against KKR. If Dhoni does not give the exuberant all-rounder more chances up the order, preferably at number 7, he will risk wasting a talent that could be the finishing touch India has lacked for the last 3 years.

As far as demoting Jadeja is concerned, that could prove tricky as Dhoni enjoys having a left-hander in the middle order. Jadeja, however, has enjoyed success at numbers 8 and 9 in test matches, which could help him bat with the tail in ODI’s. Jadeja, a Ranji Trophy triple-centurion, may be overqualified for number 8, but he’s also not good enough as a finisher at 7.

Dhoni must make a call, especially since a fast-bowling all-rounder could be invaluable in the 2019 World Cup in England. Pandya is the closest India has come to unearthing an Andre Russell. He might be the closest they get for a while and they cannot afford to waste his talent.

 

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Jay Dansinghani is a freelance writer, researcher, and author based in Hong Kong. Jay got into deep...

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