India's Test squad for the two-match Test series in New Zealand is yet to be announced, but the BCCI has already ruled out allrounder Hardik Pandya. In a media release that threw up more questions than answers, the BCCI said that Pandya hasn't regained full fitness yet, having undergone a back surgery in October 2019. As such, no time frame as been set for his return.
The media release, issued on Saturday and signed by BCCI secretary Jay Shah, adds a layer of confusion to the issue of Pandya's return in that he has been ruled out before India's Test squad has been announced.
According to the BCCI, Pandya recently travelled to London to review his back again. The importance given to his rehabilitation was underlined by the fact that he was accompanied by Ashish Kaushik, the head physiotherapist at the National Cricket Academy, where Pandya will now undergo his rehab.
"Team India allrounder Hardik Pandya has been ruled out of the upcoming Test series against New Zealand," the BCCI release said. "He travelled to London and was accompanied by NCA Head Physio Ashish Kaushik for a review by spinal surgeon Dr James Allibone. Hardik will be under rehab at the National Cricket Academy until he regains full match fitness."
After undergoing surgery last October, Pandya was optimistic of returning to action for the New Zealand tour which comprises five T20Is, three ODIs and two Tests. On December 23, the Indian selection panel, led by former wicketkeeper MSK Prasad, named Pandya in the India A squad that would play three one-dayers against New Zealand A - as a view to a return to the national side for the T20I leg of the tour.
But on January 12, Pandya was pulled out of the T20I squad as his rehab was taking "longer than expected," according to the BCCI.
Ever since he made his international debut in 2016, Pandya has been a key member of India's limited-overs sides, developing into an impact allrounder. With two T20 World Cups set to be played in the next two years, the BCCI has preferred a more cautious approach in bringing Pandya back to action.
That is what S Rajnikanth, Pandya's personal trainer, had told the BCCI when the allrounder was working with him before the board decided to send him to the NCA. According to Rajnikanth, Pandya was fully fit physically, but not match-fit enough to handle the bowling workload specifically.
That sentiment was echoed by Sourav Ganguly, the BCCI president, earlier this week, after he had met Rahul Dravid, the director of cricket at the NCA. "He's not fit yet," Ganguly told PTI. Asked whether Pandya would play the Ranji Trophy for Baroda (his state team) before returning to the national side, Ganguly ruled that possibility out, saying only that "he'll take a bit of time to get fit."
All of these events somewhat cloud the question of Pandya's return. ESPNcricinfo understands that the selectors had finalised a squad shortlist for the Tests with Pandya as an outside chance. The selectors, and Indian captain Virat Kohli, who was present at the meeting, agreed on the advantages of playing Pandya: that he was a useful bowling resource in seaming conditions as he had shown during the Nottingham Test, India's only win on the 2018 Test series in England.
But with no definitive word on his fitness, the selectors decided to wait as they were not confident if he could sustain the workload a Test match and did not want to risk rushing him back.
In the scenario that Pandya was picked for the New Zealand Test series, the selectors did not want questions being asked about his match fitness in the longer form. Pandya's last Test was the final match of the England tour in August-September 2018. Immediately after that the back issue surfaced. In December 2018, he played his last first-class match (against Mumbai) before heading to the Indian Test camp during the Australia series even if he did not feature in any of the matches.
Pandya will now look forward to the three-match home ODI series against South Africa, to be played three days after India's Test series in New Zealand.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo