With the jury still out on India's decision to field an all-pace attack in Perth, one man who could have arguably helped the balance of the side hit his straps from the get-go upon returning from a back injury suffered during the Asia Cup. While the pitch at the Wankhede Stadium for the Ranji Trophy match between Mumbai and Baroda was never likely to bear any serious resemblance to the one in Perth, it had a deceptive tinge of green, only revealing its true colours a little later.
Perhaps hoodwinked by that early impression, Baroda captain Kedar Devdhar opted to bowl, handing Hardik Pandya the new ball - only the eighth such instance for Pandya in the Ranji Trophy - and giving him a field more attacking than the one India had to kick off the second session in Perth: two slips, a gully and even a short leg, as compared to India's two slips and a gully for Umesh Yadav after lunch.
Prior to his return for the clash against Mumbai, Pandya was clear about his goals; testing himself through the course of four days in order to be considered for the third and the fourth Test was priority. While first impressions, as Devdhar found out with the Wankhede pitch, cannot always be trusted, Pandya showed no discernible discomfort. In fact, whatever little assistance the surface offered, Pandya extracted it expertly in his first two spells, justifying at least the decision to be given the new ball.
Pandya struck twice for Baroda within the first hour, and could have had another 40 minutes before lunch had a diving Yusuf Pathan clung onto a chance to his right at second slip in the 22nd over. Preceding that, Pandya made the ball wobble off the seam both ways to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of openers Aditya Tare and debutant Vikrant Auti.
Off just his second delivery, he teased Tare's outside edge, squaring him up with one that jagged away belatedly. In the same over, he induced an outside edge from the left-handed Auti that went between second slip and gully. The final ball of the first over shaped back in nicely but was let through uncertainly by Auti. It was not too dissimilar to the ball that eventually accounted for the debutant, as he shouldered arms to one that cut back off the seam and reared disconcertingly off a length to kiss the top glove on the way to the keeper. The difficulty in negotiating it was perhaps compounded by the fact that Pandya had delivered it from wide of the crease, an angle from a right-armer that usually pushes the ball wide off the left-handers' off stump.
Soon after, he pinned Tare lbw with a full inducker, as the batsman erred in playing across the line. His figures when he finished the first spell of six overs read 2 for 21, a fair reflection of how well he had bowled. His second spell was no less incisive as he cranked it up, testing not just Shreyas Iyer and Siddhesh Lad but also his back. First over back into the attack, he had Lad fending at one awkwardly, that took the shoulder of the bat and lobbed over the slips. At that stage, Iyer and Lad - the beneficiary of the dropped chance - who went on to get fine centuries had started tearing into the Baroda attack, except Pandya still had them poking and prodding tentatively, evidenced by another delivery in the same over that squared Iyer up, just before Lad's costly let-off.
Pandya returned for two more spells, a short two-over burst post lunch, and his fourth with the second new ball, in which he had Shivam Dube bowled through the gate with an inswinger. Although a bit of inconsistency had crept into his bowling by then, shown by a high economy rate of nearly five runs per over, he could not be faulted for the intensity with which he ran in all day. He finished with 3 for 74 his reward, however, was more intangible in nature: in that he got through 15 overs in the day at full tilt, exceeding his average number of overs per innings in the Ranji Trophy.