But the knock that best highlighted his quality with the bat had come two years earlier, when he was all of 21. The opponents were Sri Lanka, at the Feroz Shah Kotla, and the match has a special place in Indian cricket lore because Sachin Tendulkar scored the 35th hundred that took him past Sunil Gavaskar, the other Mumbai master, on to the top step of the centuries’ ladder.
But despite Tendulkar’s mastery, the match was very much in the balance when he, Gautam Gambhir and VVS Laxman fell cheaply in the second innings after India had scrapped for a 60-run lead. Those were the early days of Greg Chappell’s regime change, and it seemed in tune with the times that Pathan was sent up to open in the second innings.
He was magnificent, tackling the canny pace of Chaminda Vaas and the wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan with the aplomb of a veteran. By the time he was fourth out, caught behind for a 143-ball 93, the game was as good as India’s. Add in match figures of 4 for 72 with the ball, and it wasn’t hard to see why the good-looking young man was the poster boy for a new era.
The best-laid plans of mice and men, eh? After the Bangalore hundred, by which time his bowling had started to lose its sting, Pathan would play only three more Tests. Given that he was man of match in one of those – India’s greatest overseas victory, in Perth (January, 2008) – it’s not outlandish to wonder whether the curtain came down far too early.
Pathan, far more so than Vinod Kambli or Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, is Indian cricket’s greatest regret. He’s the teardrop that will never dry, a constant reminder of what could have been if a boy who could swing the ball at pace and with immaculate control, while striking it with pristine timing, hadn’t been ambushed by injuries, and the vagaries of form and confidence.
As Hardik Pandya clattered his way to a thrilling maiden hundred in only his third Test, having come in at No.8, it was hard to reconcile the fact that Pathan’s last cap came nearly a decade back. Pandya too is 23 now, and he hits the ball every bit as sweetly as his fellow Gujarati did against Pakistan those years ago.
Pathan though was a far better bowler, gifted enough to take the new ball and a hat-trick in his prime. What he didn’t have was the kind of dressing-room atmosphere that has allowed players like Pandya to come in and thrive. Having been anointed as one of Chappell’s chosen ones, Pathan was the victim of some ridiculous bullying and cheap shots from certain seniors jealous of his rise. As much as loss of pace or personal woes, that too contributed to his decline.
In this team, Pandya swans about like he’s been there forever. His captain reckons he can be as good as Ben Stokes, his coach thinks he’s a rockstar, and he can go out and express himself without the fear of failure lurking over his shoulder. It’s the kind of ecosystem every emerging talent needs, and seldom gets.
His half-century on debut in Galle was a chancy affair, a thrill-a-minute exhibition of big hitting that took India to 600. This innings was no such cakewalk. When he walked in on the stroke of stumps on the opening day, India were 322 for 6, a far cry from the dominance of 188 for 0. The momentum was with Sri Lanka, with no other partnership having added more than 35.
On the second morning, Pandya showed that there was far more to him than hitting sixes. He bided his time, grafted a little, and rotated the strike in conjunction with Kuldeep Yadav. That partnership ensured Sri Lanka wouldn’t get their quick wrap, and it was only as the session drew to a close that they felt the full force of the Pandya bat.
In 19 previous first-class matches, his highest score was 90. He has been slated as a glitzy IPL pick who doesn’t belong, but Pandya showed that he could tread water when needed before striking out to shore. The 26-run over off Malinda Pushpakumara was no accident. He had been quietly building up to that all morning, taking the score past 400 before setting his sights on the grass banks and plastic seats.
It was a hugely impressive effort, even if the Stokes comparisons can wait. On tours outside the subcontinent, India will need Pandya the bowler to step up even more, and here too the signs are encouraging. He followed up the century by pinning the dangerous Angelo Mathews on the crease, and is eager to enhance his repertoire.
The cutter that ended Kusal Mendis’s defiant innings at the SSC in the previous Test was a prime example. Having gauged the slow conditions, it was Ravi Shastri that suggested he focus on cutters, a ball he barely bowled previously. The wicket on the stroke of stumps proved the spur for the Indian surge to victory the following morning.
Pathan, who still plays the occasional IPL game, looms in the background as a cautionary tale, but these are different times. Pandya will not always enjoy such a charmed life, and there will be failures in the months ahead, but the current set-up will give him room to grow. He may belong to the IPL generation, but Pandya could well be the last and most importance piece in India’s Test-cricket jigsaw.
First Published: August 13, 2017, 5:48 PM IST