Pandya's evolution could give Kohli luxury to pursue five-bowler strategy
Hardik Pandya's calculated aggression against Australia on Sunday proved his adaptability and maturity. In the long run, it could give an already formidable India an extra bowler without compromising on the batting
The crowd at the MA Chidambaram Stadium had finally sputtered to life. Forty-eight legal deliveries had not yielded a single boundary, making voice-boxes somewhat redundant. But Hardik Pandya was up to something, smashing a second successive six off Adam Zampa to bring up his half-century in the 37th over. The fans instinctively lapsed into the chant they are most familiar with: "Dhoni...Dhoni...Dhoni."
The man they were invoking, however, was at the non-striker's end, and walked up towards Pandya. MS Dhoni is Pandya's first international captain, senior statesman, and the original badass finisher - a role Pandya is currently auditioning for. And when Dhoni speaks, you listen. Typically, Dhoni's gyaan (advice) appeared to the point, accompanied with minimal animation.
Whatever Pandya may have gleaned from the conversation seemed to have little bearing on the next ball. He got his front leg out of the way and swatted one wide of long-on. That shot helped him record a unique achievement: it was the fourth time this year that he had hit three consecutive sixes in international cricket. He had done it twice against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy and against Sri Lanka in a Test in July.
The manner in which Pandya struck those sixes - creating a strong base and not losing shape - was breathtaking to watch. But it was the grunt work that he did on either side of the glamour shots that ultimately stood out. A calculated method that married mad rush.
During India A's tour of Australia last year, Pandya broke free from the clutches of a cliché that has had plenty of airtime in cricketing discourses over the years. He learned something that changed the way he approached batting. That Pandya did it on a tour he wasn't originally meant to be a part of - he was picked after an injury to Tamil Nadu allrounder Vijay Shankar - only made it more fascinating. A poor IPL - he averaged 6.28 with the bat and took only three wickets - resulted in his exclusion from the India side for the Zimbabwe tour. The high-profile A tour was a chance to make himself relevant again.
Heading into the second unofficial Test in Brisbane - the last game of the tour - Pandya had produced an average performance with the ball. He hadn't made too many runs either, but knew a crucial performance in the final game wouldn't go unnoticed.
Meanwhile, Rahul Dravid, the India A coach, had debunked the "natural game" theory in his conversations with the team, making it clear that players can't hold up natural game as an excuse for rash cricket. The message was simple: play according to the situation and the needs of the team. Pandya could probably identify with it given his struggles adapting to a different role at Mumbai Indians, where he was slotted in at No. 3 in the 2016 season.
In Brisbane, when Pandya walked out to bat with the score at 46 for 6 in the first innings, he decided to put the lessons into practice. The pink ball was swerving around, but Pandya gritted out the first day and returned the next day to finish with 79 off 116 balls and steer the team to a respectable, even if ultimately inadequate, 169.
The game ended in a draw. It was, however, a long-term victory for Pandya even if he hadn't recognised it then. With Dravid's mentorship to tap into, the crinkles in his regimen were smoothed over. There was greater emphasis on fitness, eating right and sleeping on time, which is now an indispensable part of his routine. His flamboyant
"West Indian-from-Baroda" persona mellowed down, too, without the loss of competitive zing.
This was quickly turning into a forgettable Sunday for the Chepauk faithful, who had turned up in thousands. The dismissal of a set Kedhar Jadhav left India half their side down for 87, with nearly 30 overs remaining after opting to bat on a tricky surface. In came Pandya at No. 7, but you couldn't tell which Pandya was walking out. Was it the late-game slugger from Birmingham or the lone ranger from The Oval. Regardless of how long he lasted, his modus operandi, you felt, was going to be slam-bang. Pandya, however, activated a slightly different mode: controlled explosion.
One of his early acts was more restraint and less offence. Marcus Stoinis bowled a bouncer and Pandya shaped up for a cute ramp but bailed out in the end. Not for the last time, substance had trumped style. From there on, there were backfoot punches, nurdles, clips and dinks, and in general, percentage cricket. His strike-rate, though, consistently hovered around the 80s and 90s. There were barely any twitchy fingers waiting to pull the trigger. The Delhi game against New Zealand last year, where Pandya came close but couldn't go the distance, must have served as a timely reminder.
Dhoni's presence at the other end must have helped, too. He knows how the long game is played and imparted some crucial on-the-job training to Pandya. Lesson one: don't overreach. By Pandya's own admission, they would have been happy with a total of 230. Together, the pair lay in prowl for a bowler who could provide them with the release they sought.
Once Pandya identified Zampa as the target, he went after him the way Dhoni often did in his prime. India blasted 50 runs between overs 36 and 40, Pandya going from 35 to 77 and Dhoni quietly trudging from 28 to 35. When Pandya eventually fell to Zampa, he was out trying to do what he did all innings: pick a target and tear him down. By that time, he had added 118 runs with Dhoni, and finished with 83 off 66 balls, including five fours and five sixes. To rub it in, Pandya claimed two wickets, including that of Smith, and fractured Australia's pursuit.
The victory will be sweet for Virat Kohli. More important, though, is the larger implication of Pandya's all-round punch. In the past, Kohli has backed Pandya to play the role Ben Stokes does for England. Now, there is more evidence that he can live up to the billing. Not only could Pandya take over the finisher's mantle from Dhoni at No. 6, he could also give India the luxury of playing five bowlers, a strategy Kohli has aggressively pursued in Tests. As Pandya matures, Kohli can afford to go the way other top teams have and ensure India don't go one bowler light without compromising on the batting core. With less than two years to go for the World Cup, Pandya's rise has given an already formidable India side much-needed all-round ballast.