It is a sore point with Pakistan that they had never managed to defeat India in a World Cup clash, and it is a record India has never tired of reiterating. When the two sides meet in their opening match of the T20 World Cup, the pressure to win on both will be immense. India has won both warm-up games in the lead-up, and Pakistan has the best record in T20 Internationals since the last World Cup. But everyone knows that form doesn’t mean much in a game where one big hit could change everything. And the big question ahead of the meeting is one that has often been asked over the last three years—is Hardik Pandya reliable enough and crucial enough a player in the side to be selected on merit of his batting alone?
Pandya has had a meteoric rise to the highest echelons of the game since his IPL outing in 2015, when he impressed so much with the ball and bat that he was fast-tracked into the limited overs side and eventually found a place in the Test side. With back surgery having kept him from bowling and captain Virat Kohli having mandated that he must bowl in order to be considered for Test selection again, Hardik Pandya—who hasn’t bowled even in the IPL in the last two years—poses a problem for the selectors. They will have much to answer for if he fails to perform with the bat, in addition to denying the team a sixth bowling option. There have been several nudges from former players and commentators for Shardul Thakur—not the most reliable, but capable of shining at the most crucial times—to be favoured over Pandya. He and Ravindra Jadeja remain India’s only all-rounders in the 15-man squad, aside from Pandya.
Hardik Pandya has spoken, particularly after his match-winning outing in Australia in late 2020, of how hard he has been working on his batting, and how he and his coach have evolved a stance that allows him to optimise his shots, aim at various angles and slog his sixes. Those of us who have grown up watching the graceful batting of earlier decades might smirk at his earnest dissection of his technique, but none can deny that it is effective. Yet, however much he works on his batting and whatever results it shows, one wonders whether his contribution as a batsman is really important to a side that already has Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli in its ranks.
It may be argued that Hardik Pandya brings more than his batting, even if he doesn’t bowl. He is an excellent fielder and his cockiness and attitude fit in well with the image of natural aggression and inherent confidence this particular Indian side seeks to project.
The warm-up matches haven’t given away much about the Playing XI for the Pakistan game, with the resting of senior players including Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami having allowed more space for experimentation in the line-up for each.
Then, there is the question of current form. Pandya’s inclusion in the squad despite his inability to bowl cost in-form spinner Axar Patel his place in the fifteen, with the selectors bringing in Thakur as a fast-bowling option. Their faith in Pandya could cost the ever-reliable Bhuvneshwar Kumar his place in the eleven-man side too. K L Rahul, Ishan Kishan, and Suryakumar Yadav have impressed in the warm-up games, and little needs to be said of Rohit Sharma. Pandya hasn’t got much time in the middle. But importantly, he had an average IPL season, a shadow of his impressive 2020 performance with the bat. He only made 127 runs in 12 matches this year, at an average of 14.11 and a strike rate of 113.9, against 281 runs in 14 matches in 2020, and over 400 runs in addition to taking 14 wickets in 2019.
The 2021 IPL season was set to be Pandya’s comeback with the ball, but with the Mumbai Indians team management claiming they wanted to spare him the workload, we have a man who hasn’t bowled for most of three years entering a crucial international tournament in the vague hope that he may bowl at some point during its course—Rohit Sharma’s modified stance, after he said not so long ago that Pandya would have to be ready to bowl ahead of the tournament.
The Indian selectors have always had a tendency to pick players on their history and rapport with the captain, rather than logic and the interest of the side itself. One might perhaps excuse this in such a case as Sachin Tendulkar, who served the side for close to a quarter of a century before the runs began to dry up. There is less to say for the likes of Suresh Raina, with whom the selectors persisted for years. And it is hardly justifiable in the case of Hardik Pandya.
If Pandya is unable to bowl, the sixth bowling option would have to be Kohli, who took a turn against Australia. It would take immense generosity to term Kohli an all-rounder.
Pandya would have us believe that pressure brings out the best in him. It is to be hoped that the pressure won’t prompt him to risk an injury by bowling before he is ready, and that it will get his willow to speak loud enough to make up for the silence of his arm.
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com