In the 39th over of the second innings of the Port Elizabeth ODI, as India closed in on their first bilateral series win in any format in South Africa, Hardik Pandya struck Kagiso Rabada flush in the helmet grille with a bouncer. Almost unnoticed to anyone, he checked on Rabada and raised his hand up, as if in apology. This is the Pandya that can sometimes be missed amid what comes across as a completely different person and cricketer.
Pandya is not everybody's cup of tea. He seems three stones too light and 10kph too slow for his "too fast for you, boy" chirp in Cape Town. His hair colour is talked about more than the dark bruises he acquired by walking down the wicket to cut the seam movement in Cape Town. People seem to be in some hurry to brand him: a chief selector says he is reminded of Kapil Dev, some want to see in him a Test No. 6 who can bowl, some look at his numbers since that first innings in Cape Town and call him a bowler who can swing his bat, some can't wait to pronounce that he has been figured out by his opponents, and others consider him the arrogant product of an arrogant league.
Pandya, though, keeps turning up, his hair blonde one moment, blue the next, to do what the captain asks of him. On paper - and what is on paper does matter a lot - Pandya has scored a total of 52 runs in nine innings since his 93 in Cape Town. Yet Pandya is a three-dimensional player, which helps his cause immensely. If it was giving India some fight with the bat in Cape Town, the run-out of Hashim Amla in Centurion lifted shoulders that had begun to drop. In Johannesburg, when it seemed for large durations of the Test match that India would have been better off playing a specialist batsman in Rohit Sharma, Pandya did the holding job on the final day as India waited for the pitch to dry out and once again become the devil it had been on the first three days.
The ODIs were less kind. This is where it is hoped Pandya the batsman can help MS Dhoni extend his career. His explosive batting is expected to take some big-hitting pressure off the shoulders of Dhoni, but in the last three ODIs, with India batting first and struggling to press on in the last 20 overs, Pandya has been a complete dud.
Port Elizabeth was India's worst slowdown, with barely 100 runs coming in the last 20 overs. It also included a golden duck for Pandya. With Kedar Jadhav's cushion of extra overs missing, Pandya was now under pressure to justify his place in the side as a bowler alone. And despite the wicket of AB de Villiers in the Johannesburg ODI, Pandya hadn't had the best of times with the ball yet.
On the night, though, Pandya nicked off JP Duminy and AB de Villiers and nearly had Amla lbw before he ran him out. And he strutted. Oh the joy of having more than one crack at it. Pandya has three of them in each game. While the spinners have been great for India all series, the telling blows on the night were struck by Pandya. There is a sense of awareness to his bowling that comes from having often bowled in high-pressure environments. The slower balls to Amla, banged in the middle of the pitch, from where the ball bounced funny, played a part in slowing him down.
"Hardik has come a long way since he made his debut," Rohit, the Man of the Match for his century, said. "He understands what the team expects of him. He is a proper allrounder. Not a batsman who can bowl. Not a bowler who can bat. We expect him to come out and bowl 10 overs all the time. But it's always good to have the cushion of that sixth bowler. Kedar has unfortunately been injured.
"That provided these guys a challenge knowing they don't have anyone else to bowl those overs if needed. The confidence that they got from the last two games is immense. Special mention to Hardik. The way he came out and bowled in the middle, at the start, towards the end as well. Got crucial breakthroughs."
At the start of the series, Kohli said this side had gone out of its way looking for and accommodating players who wanted to be in the kitchen when it starts to heat up. Pandya is that kind of cricketer. Of course teams will catch up with his big hitting, and there will be periods when it will seem he has been worked out. He will forever have to keep working hard on his batting. Of course there will be long spells when he will seem innocuous with the ball. But there will always be a role for Pandya to play as long as he is in the XI; you can never take away from him the luxury of the opportunity to make up for failure in one suit with his efforts in the other.