'Project Pandya' provides a peek into the future
In a recent interview with The Cricket Monthly, Stephen Fleming, one of the most successful coaches in franchise T20 cricket, envisaged a future for cricket in which kids will grow up learning T20 and then be taught the finer skills of first-class cricket at more senior levels. On a quiet unsuspecting Sunday in the outskirts of Kandy, that generation announced its arrival. In an exhibition of unencumbered six-hitting, Hardik Pandya might have provided us a brief glimpse into at least part of what the future holds.
Pandya came to Test cricket with no century in official cricket, one first-class five-for and 17 matches for experience. He made his debut in Twenty20 cricket, and was first noticed when he represented Mumbai Indians in the IPL. To their credit, Indian cricket took notice, saw the potential and went on Project Pandya. They saw he could hit, they saw he could bowl, and then they left him with Rahul Dravid to learn the finer aspects on A tours.
Dravid and chairman of selectors MSK Prasad were particularly impressed with him when he scored 79 after walking in at 46 for 6 for India A against Australia A in Brisbane. He was given proper chin music by Jackson Bird, Kane Richardson and Chad Sayers, but he showed he could hang in with them. Pandya learnt from Dravid there was no such thing as "natural game", that he had to play according to the situation, that he had to manage risk, that he could play, in other words, first-class cricket. He was fast-tracked into the Test squad, and might have played at home against England had he not got injured in the nets.
This was just fine-tuning, though. What Pandya had already, was allowed to remain. The spirit to bowl as fast as he can and the big, clean hitting developed playing as a travelling gun for hire in local tournaments in Gujarat where you got paid for these T20 skills. If he and his brother Krunal wouldn't get paid, they wouldn't have the petrol to drive the car, which was beyond their means but they wouldn't let go off as a matter of "pride".
At Mumbai Indians, the hitting technique got refined. With the advent of league cricket, hitting sixes has become more scientific than is given credit for. On skills days they spent hours doing range hitting, just trying to hit balls out of the ground. Players now understand where power comes from. Pandya doesn't have bulging biceps, but he knows how to hit big sixes. As Fleming said, players understand "the main parts of the body that need to be activated" for these big hits.
Pandya came in to bat with India in some strife at 322 for 6. There was no Ravindra Jadeja in the side either. So Pandya played the game that he used to impress the A team until he lost Kuldeep Yadav, the No. 9. With the last two men for company, though, he went from 38 off 54 to 108 off 96 despite all the singles he turned down to farm the strike.
The second phase of his innings was reminiscent of the 43-ball 76 he scored at The Oval in the Champions Trophy final. According to ESPNcricinfo's data, he was in control of every shot he played in that innings, an almost freakish stat over a 43-ball knock. Pandya's control in this mad rush after Kuldeep's fall was an impressive 83.33%, that is five balls every over when trying to farm the strike and looking to play what is traditionally high-risk cricket.
For an exhilarating spell of play, it was remarkably scientific and calm in nature. This was efficient hitting. Not once did he appear to be slogging across the line. He had his areas marked. If Lakshan Sandakan pitched it wide of those areas, trying to make him drag the ball and hence introduce an element of slogging, Pandya kept leaving him alone. Only once did he commit too early, but then he went over wide long-off in the most impressive of his seven sixes.
There was a time when Dinesh Chandimal sent all nine men back on the fence. Pandya's belief in his technique was so unflinching, it didn't matter where the fielders were. This is a technique honed under the best T20 specialists, in the presence of hitters such as Kieron Pollard. Somebody more used to Test cricket might have looked to pick up twos, but Pandya perhaps sees more risk in going for that than the sixes.
As he started looking for sixes against everything in his swinging zone, Pandya tore the textbook and threw it in our faces. "You need experience." "You need to know how to get to hundreds." "You need to know the rhythms of Test cricket." "Nothing." Here was a man swaggering his way to his first hundred in official cricket, straight at Test level, with his team in a bother, and seemingly without a worry in the world.
We have seen predominantly Test players do well in T20s before, but we might just be entering the new bold era of players brought up on T20 doing well in Tests. It might not necessarily be successful enough. Even if it is successful, it won't necessarily be an erosion of traditional values of Test cricket, just careful Test training before T20 players are introduced to it.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo