One doesn’t know if Hardik Pandya has watched the popular Shah Rukh Khan movie of the 1990s, ‘Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na,’ but his career graph, when it comes to bowling and fitness, can certainly be summed up in that one line.
Thanks to a back injury that required a major surgery, Pandya hasn’t bowled during the last two Indian Premier League (IPL) seasons. In between, he enjoyed a great white-ball tour of Australia and bowled well in all the five T20Is against England. He also bowled sporadically during India’s white-ball tour of Sri Lanka.
The Indian team has decided to play him as a specialist batter at No. 7. But in the first game against Pakistan, batting behind Ravindra Jadeja, Pandya struggled to 11 off eight balls and sustained a shoulder injury. Of course, he didn’t bowl either.
In the latest twist to his tale, he seems to have regained fitness and bowled and batted at a practice session in Dubai on Wednesday. The key decision-makers in Indian cricket, however, have left everyone confused about Pandya’s utility to the team: is the 28-year-old a specialist batter lower down the order, a bowler, or a bit of both?
Chief selector Chetan Sharma first picked him as an allrounder, stressing that Pandya would be required to bowl his four overs. Later, when he continued to not bowl in the IPL, he was dubbed as a No. 6 specialist by captain Virat Kohli.
While Pandya was in terrific form in IPL 2020, this season his form plummeted: Pandya was woefully out of touch, managing to score just 127 runs in 12 firstname.lastname@example.org. “The truth is that the selectors wanted to send him back to India after he didn’t bowl in the IPL, but MS Dhoni (appointed Team India mentor) vouched for his finishing skills,” a source told TOI.
If he pulls off a match-winning knock against New Zealand on Sunday in India’s second group game, Pandya ‘the finisher’ will vindicate Dhoni’s faith in his abilities. A failure, though, will make a strong case for the likes of Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar and Venkatesh Iyer to replace him. All three have emerged as decent all-round options.
Two former India chief selectors that TOI spoke to had differing perspectives on the Pandya issue. Former India skipper and chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar felt that “all the decision-makers in this case, the captain, coach, physio and the selectors, would have assessed the situation regarding Pandya”.
Another former player and selector, Sandeep Patil, however, said he would have wanted the Chetan Sharma-led national selection committee to be more accountable on the issue. “His selection in the XI is up to the captain and the coach, and only the BCCI will know about it. But basically, if a player is not fit, then it comes to the selectors. If he didn’t bowl in the entire IPL, the selectors should have taken a call. They should have asked for a fitness test before including him in the team for the World Cup,” Patil said.
“As per ICC rules, he could have been replaced if he was unfit. My question regarding Hardik is not only to the captain and the coach, but to the selectors. The fitness aspect is handled by the selectors and the team physio. From my experience as selector, the BCCI secretary hands over a list of players who are fit and available.
“Someone has to be accountable. There’s no comment from (India coach) Ravi Shastri. Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane said that he’s fit. How can you say he’s fit, if he became unfit during the match? I mean, this is the World Cup, not just any series or match,” Patil added.
“The guy hasn’t bowled a single ball in the IPL, and you suddenly expose him in the World Cup? And what are you playing him as? He was sent behind Jadeja. So there really is a big question mark around Pandya. Someone like Dwayne Bravo, for example, was bowling in all the T20 leagues. He’s fit. While bowling, if he gets hammered that’s a different issue,” Patil said.
“The whole mystery around his fitness has been going on for the last six months. You’re now saying that he has a shoulder injury. In the bargain, you aren’t giving a chance to a fit guy. You’re playing an unfit guy who isn’t useful to the team. It’s not right. Because of him, you’re neglecting other fit guys who have been performing well.
“Is he so important that he will single-handedly win you a game for your team? In the earlier days, we’ve played half-fit guys, and we were lucky (that it worked) too. If Sunil Gavaskar was half-fit, you’d definitely pick him. However, these days are gone. There’s so much focus on fitness.”
“Over the last one year, Pandya hasn’t performed (well) as an allrounder. One year is a good period for those who matter to judge a player,” said Patil.
Former India pacer and current Mumbai chief selector Salil Ankola said, “If Pandya is not bowling, there’s no way he fits into the side. I’m not saying this because I’m from Mumbai, but anyone who knows even a little bit of cricket will pick Shardul over Pandya right now. How much does Shardul have to prove himself now? He’s proved himself whenever he’s been given an opportunity. If you want an allrounder at No. 6, Shardul is your man. He will find a place in any side in the world right now. However, if you want a batter at that spot, Shreyas Iyer, who has, like Shardul, proved himself too, deserves a chance,” says Ankola.