How do you do, Hardik Pandya?
An open letter to Hardik Pandya, who completed a year in ODI cricket and has become indispensable to the side over the past 12 months.
It was around this time last year that you were given the new ball by MS Dhoni - on your debut against New Zealand. Pardon me for the schadenfreude, but when Martin Guptill took you to the cleaners in your first over in one-day international cricket, I chuckled with absolute impunity, the myopic in me testifying its belief that you were a one-season T20 wonder and not every IPL product tees off in international cricket.
The last ball of that very over, though, was a gentle reminder of what was about to come. You picked up your first ODI wicket. I might still call it 'a stroke of luck' and argue saying you haven't really been tested offshore, but the thousands who stood up in optimistic expectations the moment you walked out at No. 4 at the Chinnaswamy on September 28 - for the fourth ODI against Australia - made me give my perception a second thought.
What has this Australia series done to you? What have you become? The World T20 game against Bangladesh at the same venue is now remembered for its last ball and not as much for the last over. It is remembered for Dhoni's race against time and not as much for what happened earlier in the over.
Sometimes, I think you managed to pull it off just because Dhoni had given you the last over. Just like Joginder Sharma had - who disappeared into the realm he had come from soon after. By that logic though, you should have disappeared too. But, you're still here.
I've had debates with colleagues and friends over your importance to the side and I am still not convinced by the reasons they give. My myopia hasn't been abated. However, it has been challenged like never before.
When the team doesn't find enough options for the middle-order, you are shuffled up and down as if you have been around for a decade and you are the answer to anything that's wrong with the side. Don't have a suitable No. 4? Send Pandya up. Need to finish the innings in a heist? Bat Pandya at 6. Should you manage to play fast bowling as well as you seem to play the spinners, they might ask you to open one day.
And why wouldn't they trust you? You strike at more than run-a-ball after 29 ODIs and 21 T20Is. And these numbers haven't been accumulated by cameos played at the fag end of an innings. In Chennai, you walked in at 87/5 and scored 83 off 66. You didn't seem to have cared too much about the match situation. Maybe you did, as your scoring rate in the first half of the innings suggested, but that didn't deter you from milking 5 fours and as many sixes.
50 of your 83 runs came in boundaries. There may be several players who won India the series, but for me, it was won right there, in Chennai.
Just like the ODI series against England in January was won in Pune because after Kedar Jadhav and Virat Kohli it was up to you to knock over the 65 runs that remained. And just like, against the most insurmountable of odds, you tried to turn around a lost cause at the Oval in the most important ODI of your nascent career.
Three pressure situations, three quality knocks against three of the better limited-overs teams should help a country - that escalates heroes at the same rate it berates them - pin its hopes on you.
"Generally my plan is hitting straight - I don't care if long-off is there or long-on is there. If I connect well, I know I will clear the boundary." This could either border on foolhardiness or daredevilry. You have been a daredevil so far and a bloody good one at that.
With the decline of MS Dhoni - the finisher - you have filled-in as the stopgap - I'd call you a stopgap for now - and also as the floater with the aim of dismantling the opposition's plans.
But soon they'll try to find you out, just like Mitchell Santner did recently. They won't bowl within the stumps, they'll bowl wide at you so that you don't hit it straight. They will challenge you with pace and bounce. Especially in South Africa. Should you continue to improvise, you'll cease to be a stopgap, at least in my opinion.
You might want to look at your bowling, though. An average of 35 for the fifth bowler and a three-wicket-haul as the career-best figure don't quite stand up to the figures you've stacked up with the bat.
You have completed your quota of 10 overs on only seven occasions out of 28, which means that you've had more off days than the sixth bowler in the side. That the sixth bowler is Kedar Jadhav, who admits ignorance when it comes to the method behind his uncanny knack for breaking partnerships, is a different story altogether.
It would augur well to improve those numbers because it doesn't take much time for the tides to change, especially in the unpredictable realms of Indian cricket. KL Rahul went from 'too good a player to sit out' to being dropped after only a handful of opportunities. Ravichandran Ashwin was the 'all-rounder' at No. 6 before being 'rotated out' of the limited-overs side. So those are the signs if you ever needed any.
India have had an unquenchable thirst for all-rounders and you've emerged as the most viable option for the role since Irfan Pathan debuted in 2003. What happened to him and what continues to happen to him is a mixture of luck and bad timing, so it's best for you to grab the bull by the horns when the time is right.
That time is now.