Hardik Pandya was excluded from India’s 20-man main squad for the four month long Test tour to England with his inability to bowl in the longer format one of the reasons stated for leaving out the all-rounder. Hardik is one of the most destructive batsman for India in limited overs cricket and an IPL great but has not necessarily been a regular in the Test XI. What implications does the latest snub have on Hardik’s Test career? Is it the end of the journey for the 27-year old all rounder?
Hardik has decent returns in Test cricket - he has scored 532 runs in 11 Tests (18 innings) at an average of 31.29 at a strike rate of 73.88 with one hundred and four fifties and also picked 17 wickets at a bowling average of 31.05. A batting average greater than the bowling average is usually considered the benchmark to measure the pedigree of an all rounder and any one in the positive is considered to have played his role with aplomb.
The problem is that these numbers can be misleading and do not reveal the entire story. Hardik - the batsman had a great start to his Test career scoring a quickfire fifty from number 8 in his debut innings in Galle. He produced a Player of the Match performance in just his third Test - a scintillating 108 off just 96 deliveries again from number 8 in Pallekele helping India to a 3-0 sweep. But such performances have been far and few between in his scattered career.
He has three high impact performances in 11 Tests for India - with the bat at Pallekele and Cape Town and with the ball at Nottingham. While that is not a bad conversion ratio for an all-rounder, the issue is his no-show in six of the remaining 8 matches in the format. Neither has he produced the big outstanding performances nor chipped in in both the disciplines (like a Ravindra Jadeja) with the supporting act.
Still Hardik gave the team that X-factor with the bat and balance with the ball especially in overseas conditions where India preferred to play with a 5+1+1+4 combination (five specialist batsmen, wicket-keeper, seam-bowling all rounder, four specialist bowlers). He was the seam bowling all-rounder India needed in countries like England and South Africa.
Hardik produced two of his best Test performances in these two countries. He counter-attacked with a magnificent 93 off 95 balls top-scoring for India from number 7 rescuing them from 76 for 5 and helping them stay afloat in the match. Hardik the bowler picked up three wickets in the match which included dismissing both the openers in the South African second innings in quick succession again getting India back into the contest.
He starred with the ball in Nottingham on India’s last tour to England in 2018. Hardik picked five wickets in the first innings which included the wickets of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow to skittle England for 161 giving India a big first innings lead and the ascendancy in the match. He then hammered a cameo run-a-ball 52 from number 7 to bat England out of the match. Hardik had played a leading role in India’s only Test win in the series.
The big hope was Hardik would be that X-factor in the lower-order capable of changing the course of a match with his destructive hitting - as he displayed in Cape Town. And he would provide the breakthroughs in helpful conditions overseas - like in Trent Bridge.
But soon after the England tour, Hardik suffered a series of lower back injuries which forced him to miss a number of series including the tour of the West Indies in 2019. This was a huge setback for Hardik the bowler and he was in no position to bowl long spells (or at all) with the red ball for India. Consequently he has not played another Test for India since Southampton, 2018.
His inability to bowl was not restricted only in whites for India. He did not deliver a single delivery for the Mumbai Indians both in IPL 2021 and IPL 2020. Hardik also started to play as a specialist lower-order batsman for India in limited overs’ cricket. In 14 matches across ODIs and T20Is since 2020, he was asked to bowl in just 7 innings playing as a pure batsman in half of these encounters.
While India need the services of Hardik - the batsman both in ODI cricket and T20I cricket where he is still a major force to be reckoned with and one of their trump cards in the lower order - as he displayed in Australia and the home series against England, without his services with the ball he is not good and consistent enough with the bat to demand a place in the Test XI.
The rise of Ravindra Jadeja - the finisher with the bat, re-emergence of R Ashwin - the batsman and all-rounders like Washington Sundar give the Indian think-tank enough options in the lower middle-order even in overseas conditions.
To add to all this is Hardik’s own hunger or may be the lack of it to play Test cricket. Hardik is a performer who loves the stage. In limited overs cricket and especially the IPL he has found his platform and the audience who have made him into a superstar. Thus, given all his problems, there might not be that drive or motivation in him to make a comeback for India in the longer format.
While we will see the great World Cup performance, match-changing knocks in the World T20 and cameos for the Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede, a Pallekele or a Nottingham or a Cape Town may never be witnessed again by Indian cricket.