In what is a significant development for Team India, star all-rounder Hardik Pandya has resumed bowling in the nets and was also seen in action with the white ball in the intra-squad game in Sri Lanka. Pandya has hardly bowled across formats since he suffered a back injury during the 2018 Asia Cup and this cost him a place in the Indian Test XI. The return of Pandya - the bowler is a major boost for India as it will provide the much needed balance to their limited overs’ combination.
Pandya has an impressive record for a batting all-rounder in limited overs’ cricket. He has picked 55 wickets in as many bowling innings in ODIs at a good economy rate of 5.56. He has also bagged 41 wickets in 44 innings in T20Is at a lethal strike rate of 19.5 and economy rate of 8.17 - both top-notch for an all-rounder and the fifth or sixth bowler in the XI. These numbers suggest that Pandya is a partnership breaker and gets the breakthroughs in the shortest format of the game while also being very restrictive.
Pandya suffered a lower back injury during India’s clash with arch-rivals Pakistan in the Asia Cup in September, 2018 and since then has been in and out of the Indian XI across formats with his ability to bowl severely compromised. He has represented India in just 18 of the 49 ODIs the team has played since Dubai, 2018. Pandya has bowled in 14 of these 18 matches - he did not bowl at all in two ODIs in Australia and a couple of matches in the home series against England in early 2021.
While his bowling numbers in ODIs (since Asia Cup, 2018) have remained in parity with his overall career numbers, the inconsistency and irregularity in bowling and the back injury has taken a toll on his T20I performances. Pandya bagged 33 wickets in 34 innings at a strike rate of 17.9 and economy rate of 8 till injury forced him out of the Asia Cup in 2018. Since then, his numbers have taken a sharp dip and the all-rounder has picked 8 wickets in 10 innings at a strike rate of 26.2 and economy rate of 8.65 - thus, both his potency with the ball and ability to keep the batsmen in control have taken a hit in the last two and a half years.
Pandya has also not delivered a single delivery for the Mumbai Indians in both the 2021 and 2020 editions of the IPL. While he was the X-Factor for the franchise with the bat in 2020 in the UAE producing cameos at a lightning strike rate, his form with the bat went down drastically in 2021 - Pandya just managed to score 52 runs in 7 matches at a shocking strike rate of 118.18 before the tournament was suspended. With him not contributing with the ball at all there could have been added pressure on him to deliver with the bat in the season and that might have been one of the reasons for his poor form in 2021.
Thus, it is all the more paramount for Pandya the bowler to consistently bowl for his franchise and for India. Although he has been in brilliant form with the bat in the limited overs for the country playing as a specialist, a lack of contribution in one discipline will at some point put Pandya the batsman under pressure and he would no longer be able to sustain the momentum and produce the cameos regularly. Also, a good performance from Pandya the bowler in the limited overs will get the best out of Pandya the batsman which will prove pivotal for India in the year of the World T20.
Pandya was excellent with the ball in the third and final ODI against England at home in Pune in March 2021. He was the fifth bowling option for India in the match and conceded just 48 runs in his 9 overs in a high-scoring match. Not only was India’s second-most restrictive bowler in the decider but also bowled exceptionally at the death conceding just 7 and 5 runs in the 46th and 49th overs of the chase which was instrumental in the country’s 7-run victory. It was also an encouraging sign for India that the all-rounder bowled in all the five matches in the T20I home series against England that preceded the ODI series.
Apart from having a potentially positive effect on his batting, Pandya - the limited overs’ bowler will also bring the perfect balance to the Indian XI in both ODIs and T20Is. 6-8 overs in the ODI matches against Sri Lanka and his full quota of 4 overs in the T20I series will help India find the right combination in both the formats. They can field 4 specialist batsmen with Rishabh Pant to follow at number 5. The team will then have the luxury of two world-class all-rounders in Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja at number 6 and 7 - one a fast-bowling all-rounder and the other a left-arm orthodox all-rounder.
Most significantly, with Pandya chipping in with the ball, India can play the extra attacking leg spinner in the XI in the form of Rahul Chahar. The Mumbai Indians bowler has been in terrific wicket-taking form in the last two editions of the IPL. The rationale being that even if Chahar, in the pursuit of wickets, goes for a few extra runs in the middle overs, India would have the cushion of a Pandya to send in a few relatively quiet overs. Three fast bowlers will complete what would be a balanced and potent Indian XI in both the ODIs and T20Is.
Alternatively, Pandya the bowler also gives India the option to play the extra specialist batsman at number 5 should the situation and conditions demand so.
Also, if Pandya can get back his rhythm with the ball in the limited overs he can slowly get his confidence back to bowl long spells and make a return to the Test squad as a genuine all-rounder for the country, which is what he was before his back injury.
The series against Sri Lanka and the remainder of the 2021 IPL in the UAE is just the platform needed by Pandya the bowler to get back into his stride as a world class all-rounder. A lot is riding on his shoulders.