"I want to be the Jacques Kallis of India."
Almost a year ago, when Hardik Pandya made his international debut, the India all-rounder expressed his desire to emulate his idol, the legendary Jacques Kallis.
A country that has produced some of the finest batsmen of all time, India has struggled to get on board a genuine all-rounder. It has been more than two decades since the great Kapil Dev retired and India are yet to find a player who possesses half the skills that the former India skipper had.
When Pandya made the statement, the world laughed at him. But cut to July 26, the exuberant all-rounder was presented his Test cap by skipper Virat Kohli.
Dressed in all whites, Pandya, the 289th Indian to play Tests, posted a picture in the morning ahead of the Galle Test with the caption, "What better to live moments which I often fantasized as a growing kid! The Paramount to represent India in whites. #livingthedream #SLvIND."
Before the first Test, Kohli said that having Pandya in the squad lends balance to the team and that he also believes that playing an all-rounder in the line-up will give the side an extra edge in these conditions.
"We need to understand that the last time we played here (in 2015), in the first Test we were a batsman short and the fifth bowler didn't do much in the game. So we have those options open as well. We have got great balance in the side and we have got a guy like Hardik Pandya who is a wicket-taking bowler. He has a knack of picking wickets on any surface. So, he has a great chance of playing as well," said Kohli
"That gives us a great balance. In the second and third Tests of the last tour that we played here, we included an all-rounder in the team and that made all the difference for us. We have taken lessons from that. We will surely apply those things in this series rather than getting a feel of how things will go. Very important to have your strike bowlers pick 20 wickets for your team," the skipper added.
Pandya's rise has been phenomenal; in fact, for many it was surprising. But the 23-year-old with just 17 ODIs under his belt compelled Kohli to hand him a debut straightaway as he could provide a cushion with both bat and ball.
Pandya didn't disappoint as he made a brilliant 49-ball 50 on his debut and helped India amass a mammoth first innings total of 600.
Despite being drafted as an all-rounder, Pandya was sent in late at No 8 as the experienced duo of R Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha grounded Sri Lanka further into submission.
Since the start of 2016, Ashwin and Saha had forged three fifty partnerships and one double-century stand. They were at it again, this time adding 59 for the sixth wicket to swell India's lead.
When Pandya walked in, India were well in control of the game. Pandya was involved in stands with the last two wickets that yielded 83 in 71 balls with the right-hander smacking Nuwan Pradeep for three sixes.
It's this fearless approach- a cocktail of aggression and caution that makes Pandya special.
Pandya's skill and talent was there on display ever since he arrived on the international stage. However, fans feared he would be just a flash in the pan and would subsequently slip into oblivion as has happened with the likes of Irfan Pathan, Stuart Binny and Ajit Agarkar.
But, the Baroda lad has been proving his credentials, ticking almost all the boxes and most importantly showing the ability to stand tall even among ruins.
Pandya's resilience and maturity came to the fore during the Champions Trophy final where India were humiliated by Pakistan. India chasing a target of 339 runs to win were tottering at 72/6.
Pandya walked in and lifted the mood of the glum Indian supporters with a brilliant 76 off just 43 deliveries. It was a belligerent knock laced with six humongous sixes and four boundaries. Pandya infused life, made the dressing room and the world stand up and take notice.
A horrible mix-up saw a furious Pandya walk back with dejection writ large over his face. Who knows what could have happened had Pandya stayed till the end? Although India lost the game, Pandya with that knock almost cemented his place in the ODI side and most importantly conveyed a message to the skipper that he was ready to graduate for the next level.
Pandya continued to impress and was one of the standout players during India's tour of West Indies.
During the fourth ODI against West Indies, he registered impressive figures of 3/40 and helped India restrict West Indies to a paltry total of 189/9.
During the run chase, when the famed Indian batting collapsed, Pandya made a run-a-ball 20 and his dismissal was the turning point as India lost by 11 runs.
Even during the limited overs series against England, Pandya came up with match-winning contributions with both bat and ball and thereby proved his worth as a genuine all-rounder.
However, Pandya's bowling still needs a course correction. He is pretty one-dimensional at the moment and his penchant to use the short ball often makes him predictable.
In limited overs, the all-rounder has been guilty of being expensive at the death as he sticks to bowling length deliveries rather than bowling full and close to the off-stump.
Bowling in Test match cricket is altogether a different ball game and one needs to see how Pandya performs with the red cherry.
Nevertheless, Pandya has started working on his bowling variations and has a stock slower delivery up his sleeve. There is no doubt that Pandya, if he puts in the hard yards, can be the genuine seam bowling all-rounder India needs desperately.
Although a certainty in limited overs, Pandya needs to adapt to the rigours of Test cricket and the onus is on Indian cricket to ensure he doesn't fall off the radar.
After the Sri Lanka assignment, India will tour South Africa and on pitches where there will be bounce and carry, Pandya as a seam bowling all-rounder could be a boon for India.
South Africa were blessed to have Kallis and if Pandya dreams of emulating his idol, he must develop the broad shoulders of Kallis who acted as a fulcrum around whom the wheel turned.