In their opening 50-over match at the Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville, Chris Tremain and Daniel Worrell skittled India A for 55. Pandya’s contribution was 1. In four other innings, as India A stormed back to win the Quadrangular A-Team Series, he managed 46 runs for twice out. There were five wickets in the five matches that cost him 42 apiece. Those weren’t exactly Kapil Dev numbers. More than the next great all-rounder, Pandya seemed destined to be the next Big Time Charlie.
In the first unofficial Test against Australia A, Pandya made 0 and 7, as India A lost by three wickets. It was a good time for Rahul Dravid, the coach, to step in. We aren’t privy to what exactly was said, but the gist of the message was to focus on substance rather than frills. Dravid has a reputation as a mild-mannered man, but I’ve seen him bawling out Zaheer Khan for perceived lack of effort. It perhaps wasn’t a coincidence that Zaheer turned his stalling career around soon after.
To give Pandya credit, he took on board what his coach told him. When he was selected for the Test squad against England in late 2016, a couple of months after making his ODI debut, he told the DNA newspaper: “I can't but thank Rahul Dravid enough for his contribution. I understood that there is a mental aspect about the game that needs to be worked upon. He (Dravid) made me mentally stronger.
“I don't think I have learnt more than what I did during those one and a half months under Rahul sir. He would tell me about things that I need to try out. I was mentally strong but after interacting with him, I understood that I could get even better.”
He didn’t play against England, and there were plenty of derisive noises when he was given his cap against Sri Lanka in Galle in July 2017. But Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri were resolute in their judgment, with the captain going so far as to make Ben Stokes comparisons. Pandya repaid that faith with a belligerent half-century on debut, and a stunning century in his third game in Pallekele. In the second Test, it was his cutter, a ball he had barely mastered before that, that broke a stubborn partnership and opened the door to victory.
But this was not the Sri Lanka of Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and those performances were viewed with an asterisk over them. When Pandya was subsequently rested for the home Tests, the sarcasm meter went through the roof. With his bling, flamboyant hair and cool-kid demeanour, Pandya epitomizes a new generation that rubs many traditionalists the wrong way. He’ll get his comeuppance in South Africa, they said.
The team management never had any doubts about playing him. Kohli and Shastri don’t go by numbers or technique. Both know that if India are to salvage anything from tours of South Africa, England and Australia, they need warriors on the field, men who will absorb hard blows without buckling at the knees. They want those that will thrive on adversity.
When Pandya came to the crease at Newlands, India were 76 for 5, 210 behind, with Cheteshwar Pujara having fallen first ball after lunch. By the time tea was taken, he had romped to 81 not out. There were two reprieves – a dropped catch from Dean Elgar at gully when he was on 15, and Quinton de Kock’s missed stumping off Keshav Maharaj when on 71.
Either side of those, Pandya wielded his bat like a scimitar. The classical drives went hand-in-hand with improvised bunts over the keeper and slips, and he took on the short balls in conventional fashion too. More importantly, he trusted Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who has shown several glimpses of batting ability in the past, to keep up his end.
At that tea interval, I went down to the Supersport commentary box to chat to Michael Holding. “Did anyone ever take on the four of you like that?” I asked. Holding grinned. “A few guys tried to come out swinging,” he said. “But none of them lasted very long.”
The very fact that he didn’t rubbish the question tells you of the esteem in which this South Africa pace attack is held. In swing-and-seam-friendly conditions, only James Anderson can match Vernon Philander. Morne Morkel, on his good days, can be as discomfiting as Patrick Patterson was back in the day. Kagiso Rabada’s silent menace summons up memories of Holding himself, while Dale Steyn, now sadly lost to this series, is the most complete pace bowler we’ve seen since Wasim Akram.
There simply isn’t a weak link there. But Pandya, with a playlist full of songs he doesn’t know the lyrics to – if you go by what his captain says – took them on, and on his terms. He wasn’t interested in survival. He wanted to leave his imprint on the match and series.
Top-level sport is all about wafer-thin margins. Had Pandya been snaffled for 15, you can imagine what a field day the cynics would have had. That he backed up those runs by coming out and taking two wickets only rendered them muter still. But this is just a phase. He’s so out there as a character that there will always be those waiting for him to fail, so that they can put the boot in. It’s been that way with his captain for a decade.
Neither fits a certain template of how cricketers are supposed to behave. Just as with the good-girl notions, these are ideals that no one can really live up to. Some try. Kohli never bothered. Neither will Pandya. And we should celebrate them both for that alone.
From the press boxFrom The PressboxHardik PandyaIndia vs South AfricaSouth Africa vs India 2018virat kohli
First Published: January 8, 2018, 11:16 AM IST