It might be best to get the bleeding obvious out of the way right at the beginning. Not long ago, Twitter was sent into a feeding frenzy by Mohandas Menon, India’s leading statistician, by a tongue-in-cheek post. It read:
After 26 ODIs...
Kapil Dev: 472 runs, 28 wkts, 7 cts.
Hardik Pandya: 530 runs, 29 wkts, 10 cts.
The superficial conclusion to be drawn — and social media is the ideal place for such leaps of faith — is that Hardik Pandya is better than Kapil Dev. The more nuanced view, of course, is that Kapil’s One-Day International career began with modest returns, but he grew from strength to strength to become one of the finest all-rounders the game has ever produced.
That Pandya should be compared to Kapil is only natural. Just as England went through decades in search of the next Ian Botham, India has been obsessed with unearthing the next Kapil Dev. The fact of the matter is that this needless pursuit has been the kiss of death for many a budding all-rounder.
Also, if you believe it is only overenthusiastic fans who are making the comparison, you would be dead wrong.
M. S. K. Prasad, the chairman of the senior selection committee, kicked this particular door wide open soon after Pandya had scored his maiden Test century. “If he stays grounded, I am sure we will see him being compared to the legendary Kapil Dev in the times to come.” said Prasad, adding: “I am very happy to say that our search for an allrounder has been successful in the form of Hardik.”
Read: Pandya: Man who would be king
Fortunately, Pandya was flattered but had his feet firmly on the ground when the comparison was put before him. “Obviously, if he (M. S. K. Prasad) says that, then it feels good,” Pandya said then almost sheepishly. “If someone compares you with such legends… Obviously, my focus is to play my cricket and just become what I can become. Even if I can be 10% of what he (Kapil) was, I will be pretty happy in my life.”
At a promotional event soon after, the big man himself weighed in, with characteristic self-deprecation, suggesting that Pandya is a better cricketer than he was. Given the Haryanvi’s sense of timing, it is safe to say this can be taken with a pinch of salt.
Leaving Kapil Dev aside to enjoy his time on the golf course for the moment, it’s well worth asking just what Pandya’s emergence means to Indian cricket. For a very long time, captains from Sourav Ganguly to Virat Kohli have been looking for a batsman who could bowl a bit of seam up.
Until recently, most Indian top-order batsmen could bowl decent part-time spin, but that seems to have abruptly changed. This meant that the only way in which the team could afford to play five bowlers without compromising on the batting was to have a genuine all-rounder in the mix. Stuart Binny was used briefly in that role, but he could not nail down a place solely on either batting or bowling merit and was soon out of favour.
What Pandya has done, with his evolution from Twenty20 biffer to ODI all-rounder to Test seam-up explosive lower-order hitter is give Kohli the luxury of being able to be utterly flexible with the playing XI he picks for any particular game.
While it would be pushing it to suggest that Pandya can be the primary quick bowler in an attack — he certainly does not bring to the table what someone like Mohammad Shami does — Pandya is a decent option as a third seamer in limited-overs cricket and can be called upon to play a holding role in a similar capacity in Tests when India choose to go in with an extra spin option.
Kohli: Pandya might be a regular at No. 4
This evolution, however, did not come easily and while Pandya should be immensely grateful for the abundant gifts he was born with, understanding the true value of hard work is what took him from being an IPL star to an India regular. It should come as no surprise that Rahul Dravid, who built a name for himself for being methodical, thorough and prepared, was the guiding force behind Pandya’s growth. When with the India A team, Pandya was forced to think about his game, develop a reliable bowling style and push himself harder in terms of discipline and fitness.
“A good example about Hardik from my perspective is, he’s willing to play situations and not just the natural game we often speak about. Credit goes completely to him. He’s the one who has actually turned his career around,” said Dravid, in typically self-effacing style, leaving all the plaudits to his ward. “It’s not about playing just the one way you want to play. If he bats at four, he bats in a particular way. If he bats at six, he bats in a particular way. That shows maturity and that’s what you want to see. This concept of ‘play your natural game,’ which I hear all the time, frustrates me because there’s no such thing in my belief as a ‘natural game.’
Dravid goes on to explain his point about just why it is crucial that a player does not simply rest on his talent. “It’s only about how you play different situations. Are you good enough to play when the score is 30 for three, or 250 for three? Are you good enough to bat when you go in first over or are you good enough to go in first ball after lunch?” said Dravid. “You have to learn to bat differently in different conditions, and if you can do that like Hardik is showing at the moment, those would be signs of a developing cricketer, someone who can make consistent contributions and not someone who is a one-off, who can produce brilliance once in a while.”
With consistency, especially across formats, comes a heavy workload, and even in these times of yo-yo tests and extreme fitness, the need to manage a player carefully is paramount. It is not only how much game time a player gets, but how much rest between tours that determine his longevity. Kapil Dev might have bowled over after over, but in his time, the cricket season was more clearly defined and there came a time each year when the body was given a chance to heal itself.
Read: Dual role, single-mindedness!
In Pandya’s case, this will be a luxury. But, India should take note of the cautionary take of Irfan Pathan, who was overbowled to the point of losing his natural inswing to the right-hand batsman, and pushed up the order so often that he began to take his batting more seriously than his bowling. Once the sting went out of Irfan, it was only a matter of time before he slipped out of the mix altogether.
Pandya has an advantage over Irfan in that he does not rely overly on swing, but rather has the ability to seam the ball at decent pace. Pandya is also a much more complete batsman than Irfan was, has a rocket arm backed up by athletic fielding and a safe pair of hands.
But, once again, to view Pandya in comparison to another all-rounder is neither here nor there. What is far more important is how he fits into the current Indian team. The fact that Pandya has Kohli’s complete confidence — rarely has an Indian captain been such an unabashed fan of a player just making a name for himself — means that he is here to stay.
At the moment, everything is going right for Pandya, but anyone who has spent some time around cricket will tell you it cannot last forever. Pandya’s true test will come in the next few years, when opposition bowlers work out exactly where to bowl to him in order to keep him quiet. Pandya’s challenge will come when his bowling is attacked on true batting surfaces — something he has already got a taste of when he has been targetted as the bowler to go after.
But, for the moment, India are enjoying the fact that they finally have the kind of player in their ranks who can turn a game either with bat or ball. And Pandya, is basking in the glow of adulation and appreciation that are natural by-products of succeeding in the country’s favourite pastime.
To return to where we began, Pandya is not, and never will be the next Kapil Dev. There are some players who come around once in a generation, and others once in a lifetime. Kapil Dev is the latter, a man who changed Indian cricket forever, carrying the kind of bowling burden Pandya will not even begin to understand. There will never be another Kapil Dev, but, that is nothing to be sad about. Rather, there is a genuine opportunity for Pandya to expand his game in such a manner that future generations will ask who the next Pandya is. That is still a long, long way off, but the early steps are as promising as any Indian cricket has seen in an all-rounder in decades.
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