Pandya reaps India the benefits of patience and persistence
On 26th January 2016, when Hardik Pandya first wore the blue Indian jersey at the Adelaide Oval, many were perplexed by his selection. India's desperation for a pace bowling all-rounder was evident to the world. The Mumbai Indians star's first over with the ball was one to forget as he was smashed for 19 runs by Steve Smith and Aaron Finch. However, in his next two overs, Pandya took two wickets and went for only 16 more runs.
Indian fans were well aware of Pandya's explosive batting ability through the previous year's Indian Premier League. However, he had hardly inspired with the ball in his breakthrough season, where Pandya had only one wicket with an economy rate in excess of 10 runs per over. Doubts about whether he was really an International calibre all-rounder was bound to be raised. However, India's search for a seam-bowling all-rounder forced them to take a risk.
Almost two months later since his T20I debut, he bowled that famous last over in the T20 World Cup vs Bangladesh. In October 2016, the boy from Baroda made his one day International debut against New Zealand at Dharamshala, where he won the man of the match of the match for a memorable spell of 3-31.
In quick time, Hardik has established himself as one of the pillars of the Indian limited over's team. With the bat, he has maintained his reputation as a dangerous lower batsman and to the surprise of many, the youngster has become a reliable fifth bowler with an economy rate of 5.5 in the 50 over format.
It is fair to say that Pandya was a gamble that paid off for the Indians.
Pandya - The Test Cricketer
Only about a year earlier, Hardik Pandya was handed his Test debut in Sri Lanka. His inclusion in the longer format raised eyebrows. Prior to taking the field in Galle, Pandya had only featured in 17 first class games where he had an ordinary batting average of 27.62 and a bowling average of 35.66.
Every cricket follower is aware of the unforgiving nature of the longest format. Any weakness, deficiencies, and faults are exposed very quickly in the format. The lack of a seam-bowling all-rounder has been India's Achilles heel for a long period of time. This was not a gamble by Virat Kohli'side, it was a project that the team management decided to heavily invest in.
Pandya's Test career got off to a dream start with a century against Sri Lanka and mindblowing 93 vs South Africa in Cape Town. However, post that, there were more failures than success. The runs dried up and there was barely any wickets to show for.
Post India's embarrassing defeat at Lord's, most pundits pointed in his direction. There were calls from all quarters to drop him. Despite him being India's second highest run scorer in Tests in 2018, despite him being the only batsman outside of Virat Kohli to show application on the crease and despite his three-wicket haul in the second Test match, Hardik Pandya was made the scapegoat by many for India's lacklustre effort.
However, the captain and coach did not even entertain the idea of dropping him. They decided to stick by him and reaped fruit for their persistence. In a brilliant spell of swing bowling in the third Test match, Pandya took 5 wickets in 29 balls to ensure England were bowled out for a paltry total of 161. Later, he scored a quickfire 50 to take India's lead over 500.
It was a complete all-around performance from the 24-year-old. If not for Virat's Kohli stupendous batting effort in both innings, Pandya would have won the man of the match award in the famous overseas Test win for India.
In a career, only 10 Test matches old, there have already been extreme ups and down for Hardik Pandya. However, the biggest positive has been the constant improvement one has seen throughout his career. From becoming a responsible batsman to a disciplined bowler, Pandya has come a long way from the player Indian fans first saw in Adelaide two years ago.
Even his biggest fans will concede that the Baroda man still has a long way to go. He still needs to work on various facets of his game. More than anything, he needs to prove his consistency. However, all signs point to a belief that Pandya will become the allrounder India have always wanted.
Why Virat Kohli likes him so much is not hard to imagine. In many ways, Pandya might remind Kohli of himself. Both carry the same persona. Like Kohli, Pandya is an animated character, someone who is capable of making things happen with the bat, bowl or in the field.
Lesson for India
There were many occasions in the past year, where dropping Hardik Pandya from the Test team would have been the easiest thing to do. With inconsistent performances and constant questions on his place in the Test side, not many would have blinked an eye if Pandya did not feature in the playing eleven. However, Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli did not bulge and maintained their faith in the all-rounder.
The team management's belief in Pandya was there for everyone to see and it paid dividends. Quite visibly, Pandya knew his place in the side was secure and that allowed him to play with freedom. The extended run allowed Pandya the time and place to work on his weakness. His progress is a classic example of how to develop a player.
However, under the current regime, not everyone has got the same time. Someone like Lokesh Rahul has been constantly dropped after a couple of failures. Most recently, he found himself out of the one day side after one failure at Lord's. As a result, a player of his calibre and talent has not been able to establish himself as a regular in any format.
As a matter of fact, over the past two years, no young batsman has established himself in any format. India's search for the No. 4 batsman in ODIs has seen the likes of Manish Pandey, Dinesh Karthik, KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer and Suresh Raina being given chances. But none of them has got a run of more than five games at the same position. As a result, India is not even close to finding a solution for the same.
The captain and coach must learn from their treatment of Hardik Pandya and let every young player have the same freedom. Each player must take lessons from Pandya's growth and constantly improve themselves. Every aspiring cricketer should look at him as an inspiration in how to make the most of opportunities.