Hardik Pandya provides balance to India, and breathing space for out-of-form batters like Virat Kohli

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Off the last ball of his sixth over, Hardik Pandya bounced Jos Buttler and the England white-ball captain accepted the bait. Buttler swung the ball high in front of square from outside off, but Ravindra Jadeja’s elite athleticism ensured that he not only sprinted to the ball from deep square leg, but also held onto it after impact with the turf.

Jadeja’s spectacular take had given Pandya his fourth wicket in the third ODI in Manchester – the first time the all-rounder has taken a four-for in ODIs, after which he proceeded to rescue India from 72 for 4 with his 71 off 55. Last week, Pandya had taken only his second T20I four-for in Southampton, right after hitting 51 off 33.

Balancing the combination

Since his comeback to the national team in June, against South Africa, Pandya has instantly shown just how much India were missing him, especially in his fit-and-firing avatar. He provides just the right balance to this unit, the value of which goes well beyond the crucial breakthroughs he regularly provides or the runs he scores.

And no other all-rounder that India possess has been able to calibrate the team-combination scales in white-ball cricket with such finesse; about that, there remains absolutely no doubt.

Pandya’s presence has allowed India a decent amount of cushion if one of the bowlers goes on to be expensive. It also did not let them feel the absence of their premier pacer Jasprit Bumrah too much at Old Trafford. Even if it is something as basic, but critical, as putting in a reliable second-change spell after the opening bursts from Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, Pandya has stepped up to that role too.

Similarly, on the batting front, his name – and Jadeja’s – on the team sheet means that much more buffer for the preceding specialists, and that much more breathing space if one or more of them is out of form, like Virat Kohli is at the moment. It becomes a different game if a Shardul Thakur or a Bhuvneshwar Kumar has to be forced into the role of a bowling all-rounder to shore up what is already a long tail.

With the genuine all-rounders around instead, the specialists can bat with more freedom and take more risks at the top, in keeping with how the white-ball game is evolving around the world.

And most importantly, a fit Pandya means India’s T20 World Cup build-up is ticking along. India will keep hoping that this hard-fought fitness holds going into Australia. Pandya had bowled just four overs in five games in the 2021 T20 World Cup, effectively playing as a specialist batsman; that is not what they want him to be, as has been made clear.

White-ball craft

In that regard, it was heartening that Pandya sent down as many as seven overs in Manchester. The last time he bowled more was March 2021 – nine against England in Pune – and the last time he bowled his full quota in an ODI was in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, also at Old Trafford. His workload’s been steadily building up since he bowled a solitary over in his comeback match against South Africa in Delhi last month.

In Manchester, a majority of Pandya’s deliveries were either short or just short of a good length. Only Mohammed Siraj had found some movement with the new ball, Mohammed Shami had gone for plenty with his full lengths, in search of early swing. Pandya saw that and altered his strategy.

“I had to bend my back a bit. I had to change my plans. I realised that this was not the wicket to go full, and went for the short ball, using it as a wicket-taking delivery. I fancy my bouncers,” he said after taking 4 for 24 in the England innings.

Not that Pandya cannot move the ball around – he has a Test five-for in England – but he uses his varied short balls smartly in white-ball cricket. He can bowl the wide one pace-on, or slow, and also dig in a mean quick one or off-cutter at the batsman’s throat.

Pandya played on Liam Livingstone’s ego in Manchester. His first spell of four overs had gone for a mere two runs, so he could afford to concede a few for another wicket. He had Livingstone swinging and missing, ducking and fending his bouncers. In between, Livingstone also connected, depositing two over the boundary. But Pandya had the last laugh, literally, like he had had against the same batsman in the second ODI at Lord’s, as Livingstone smacked one eventually to Jadeja for a sharp take.

“He likes to take the short ball on and when someone does that, it gives me goosebumps thinking that sometimes you can win the battle and sometimes I can,” Pandya said. “I told the captain that it does not matter if I go for four sixes, if I take a wicket here, it will make a difference.

“The captain knows when I should bowl and when I should not. The body is fine, that is the reason I am able to bend my back and bowl so much.”

Rescue act

Pandya’s batting on Sunday was as switched-on as his bowling was. When England went short into his body, he did not hold back on the pull. When they pitched up, he was ready to take advantage of the vast vacant spaces at deep extra cover.

When Craig Overton zipped a lifter past his outside edge, Pandya gave the bowler a thumbs-up, and calmly played the next one late past backward point for a single. After Reece Topley appealed unsuccessfully for caught-behind down the leg side, Pandya sent Rishabh Pant ducking for cover with a rocket of a straight drive for four. He has this ability to consign the previous delivery to history in an instant, and then immediately hit back hard.

There was an incredible reflex back-foot punch off Livingstone that hurtled past extra cover and had such good timing it beat the sweeper’s dive into the rope; it also left the bowler scratching his head in disbelief.

By the time he failed to keep a pull down off Brydon Carse, Pandya had gone at a strike rate of nearly 130 and had outscored and outpaced Rishabh Pant in the fifth-wicket stand. That rarely happens, and when it does, it requires something special.





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