Feigning innocence, I replied: “Know what?” “About the bullying,” he said. “I can’t tell you that,” I told him. He kept staring at me, and I was compelled to ask him: “But it’s true, right?” He just turned away and settled back in his seat. No words were needed.
The incident I wrote about had taken place on the flight to the Caribbean in the summer of 2006. At the time, Pathan was one of the team’s emerging stars, someone who had enjoyed a stellar couple of seasons in both forms of the game. On that flight, one of the team’s seniors sledged him mercilessly. Nicknames like “Sir Garry” were the least of it. Much of what was said was not underpinned by humour, but by genuine malice and jealousy. Coincidence or not, Pathan was seldom the same player again.
It was impossible not to think of that episode on Sunday night, after India had clinched the ODI series against Australia in just three games. Soon after the game, Virat Kohli’s Twitter account had a video of him talking up Hardik Pandya as ‘the man of the moment’. They were laughing and bantering together as equals, with no sign of any hierarchy in sight. When people talk of the success of this Indian team, and individuals like Pandya, that one huge factor should not be overlooked.
Pandya’s all-round excellence – he followed up a spell of 1 for 58 which included an off-cutter that castled David Warner with a blistering 72-ball 78 – came exactly ten years on from one of Pathan’s last defining performances. When people think of the inaugural World Twenty20 final, they invariably summon up Gautam Gambhir’s punchy 75, MS Dhoni’s Joginder Sharma gamble and the Misbah-ul-Haq miscue to Sreesanth. But it was Pathan that broke the back of the innings with the wickets of Shoaib Malik, Shahid Afridi (first ball) and Yasir Arafat.
He finished with 3 for 16 from his four overs that night. A few months later, and just a few days on from that airplane conversation, he scored 28 and 46 and took five wickets to be Man of the Match in the most praiseworthy away victory in India’s Test history. He would play only two more matches before the curtain came down on his Test career. He last wore the blue limited-overs kit nearly five years ago.
Issues with fitness, his action and personal problems also played a part in Pathan’s decline, but there can be no denying that the dressing-room environment was often toxic, especially in the years when Greg Chappell was coach. Those the coach promoted often became targets for the others, so much so that some of them preferred to airbrush that period from their memories.
Contrast that with the confidence that Pandya shows, on and off the field. His first-class resume may not have had much to commend him, but his grasping of the IPL nettle showed that he wasn’t fazed by the big occasions. That belief in his ability has been translated to the international arena. In a crunch game at the World Twenty20 in 2016, it was Pandya that MS Dhoni trusted with the final over against Bangladesh. After starting poorly, he held his nerve while the batsmen lost theirs.
On Test debut, he smacked a run-a-ball half-century to hasten India’s declaration in Galle. In Pallekele, he smashed a magnificent maiden hundred, including 26 runs in an over off Malinda Pushpakumara. Twice in three games against Australia, his all-round ability has come to the fore in Indian wins.
Pathan, who often took the new ball in his 29 Tests, was the better bowler, especially when it swung, and a technically correct batsman who batted at seven different positions in the order. Pandya, promoted to No.4 on Sunday in Indore, could be similarly valuable with the bat given how cleanly he strikes the ball down the ground. He’s a dynamic batsman who will always ask questions of the bowlers, instead of being a sitting target for them.
Whether his bowling is good enough for the third-seamer’s role away from the subcontinent is still up for debate. But he has improved with every outing, and has shown he has the ability to incorporate variations to complement his lively pace.
The key difference between him and Pathan is off the field. In Kohli and Ravi Shastri, whose idea it was to send him up to No.4 to target the spin of Ashton Agar, Pandya has the backing of those that matter most. They will not give up on him after a couple of bad games, just as they didn’t close the door on Shikhar Dhawan after a poor run last year.
It makes you wonder just how good Pathan might have been in this kind of ecosystem.
From the press boxGautam GambhirHardik Pandyaind vs aus 2017India vs AustraliaIrfan PathanMS DhoniShahid Afridishoaib malikvirat kohli
First Published: September 25, 2017, 2:12 PM IST