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Hardik Pandya: The Pole to Team India’s Balancing Act

Going into the ODI series with New Zealand, MS Dhoni made it clear that India needed to make the most of the eight ODIs India would play before the 2017 Champions Trophy. Now is the time to find the best horses for the courses they will see in England for not only the Champions Trophy, but the 2019 World Cup.

When India won the 2013 Champions Trophy in England, Ravindra Jadeja was the star all-rounder with the most wickets of anyone in the tournament and useful runs down the order. It would be the equivalent of hoping for lightning to strike twice in the same place for Jadeja to be the key man again, and India will be wise not to bank on that.

The problem Team India currently has though, is that there is no one they can bank on in that lower-middle order that provides that vital balance that proves invaluable in shorter formats.

Ravichandran Ashwin is the best Test all-rounder in the world as per the official rankings, but his inability to provide big hitting late leaves him in much different stature for limited overs cricket. Stuart Binny has flattered to deceive. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s swing bowling will be vital in English conditions and can provide some substance with the bat, but none of them come close to offering the balance the likes of Andre Russell or Ben Stokes offer to their respective sides.

After bursting onto the IPL scene and soon after the T20 Indian team with his his explosive hitting, vibrant fielding, and highlight filled (both good and bad) bowling, Hardik Pandya’s star quickly waned. His T20 World Cup went from a lucky escape against Bangladesh to a disastrous final over of his spell against the West Indies in the semifinals. After Virat Kohli had just picked up  a wicket and conceded four runs off his over.

With West Indies still needing an improbably 73 off 36, Pandya conceded 18 to completely change the equation in favour of the West Indies. With balls dismissed into the stands from his hand far more frequently than after being clubbed by his bat, the now 23-year old was forced into make adjustments after being discarded in virtually the same window he was called up.

Having got a taste of the tantalizing flavour of international competition that leaves the IPL paling in comparison, he knew it was time to work on himself. As India’s generation next demands, he hit the gym, hoping to gain the pace in bowling and strength in batting that would make him a force to reckon with on the international stage. India recognized his efforts, and have drafted him back into the squad.

The call up wasn’t just because of the work he put in though. Team India’s think-tank, from Dhoni and Kohli to Kumble and MSK Prasad, know that Hardik Pandya gives India the best shot at the balance they need for the 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup.

Dhoni has long established his reputation as a man whose eyes open widest with a trophy on the line, and it would take a foolish man to bet against him having a laser-like focus on retaining the two major trophies he’s hanging around for. Seaming conditions and small grounds are tailor-made for both Pandya’s bowling and batting, and so the time, though limited, has to be invested to mould him into international shape.

On a Sunday morning that built up the much awaited return of Dhoni to the international stage, the team made certain to make their most important hope the focal point. As they prepared to take the field, it was decided that the greatest all-rounder India has ever produced would hand Pandya his first-ever ODI cap. This was all clearly part of a well thought out plan. And based on what transpired during the match, it seemed fitting that it was 38 years to the day that Kapil Dev had made his Test debut.

Dhoni handed Pandya the new ball, and while he said there were initial nerves, he let the ball do all the talking. After conceding 13 runs off his first five deliveries, his remaining figures read 6.1-0-18-3 with Martin Guptill, Corey Anderson, and Luke Ronchi making for an impressive set of scalps.

The biggest positives in his bowling were the obvious increase in pace, which seemed to in turn give him the confidence to pitch the ball up. Mid-to-high 130s were regularly displayed on the speed gun (his final delivery, a bouncer, was clocked at 142kph) and in conditions that supported swing bowling early (much like what India will find in England), it made him all the more menacing.

The other big positive to emerge from this match was an improved ability to execute a plan. As mentioned previously, 13 runs came off his first five deliveries, but two boundaries came off outside; one where Guptill played away from his body on the drive and the other with Guptill unsure whether to play or leave.

He persisted with the fuller length to Corey Anderson as well, and Anderson eventually drove a ball that wasn’t quite there for the drive straight to mid-off. He got lucky with the wicket of Ronchi, as that was a half-volley on middle and leg, but sometimes being good buys you a bit of luck.

When Pandya was called over to claim the ‘Man-of-the-Match’ award, he didn’t care too much to talk about his performance, but chose to revel in just how special it was to receive his cap from Kapil Dev. It was a bit of a contrast to his usual jovial self, but it was clear that this was a man that was grateful for another opportunity after being dropped.

Too much may have come too soon for him, but the hunger he has shown to come back so quickly is a major sign of encouragement. The morning conditions in Dharamsala were exactly what he will need to thrive in, so there is every reason to believe Dhoni when he said that he “can’t see any reason why he can’t be the first name among the three fast bowlers”.

Every tight rope walk begins with a first step that represents the biggest leap of faith. India have taken that step, and now it’s up to Pandya to maintain the balance.

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