11 Test matches, 532 runs at an average of 31.29, four fifties, one hundred. 17 wickets at 31.05, one fifer, a bowling strike-rate of 55.1. These are not bad numbers for a player, especially for someone who has played Test cricket only for a couple of years.
These are the numbers of Hardik Pandya in the longest format for India. All of his 11 Tests came between Jul 2017 and August 2018, each one of them away from home (except one against Afghanistan in 2018). Pandya has been the answer to India’s eternal search for a pace-bowling all-rounder who provides that balance at 7 and adds to the bowling as well. There were flashes of brilliance and he was doing well until recurring lower back issues constantly kept him out of the game.
Pandya underwent surgery in late 2019, which kept him out of action for months. And just when he was on the verge of returning back to the Indian colours, the coronavirus pandemic forced everything to shut shop. That meant, Pandya spent almost a year on the sidelines. All he played was a little bit of cricket in the DY Patil T20 tournament.
He was superb in the 2020 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) while he was simply magnificent once he returned to the India blue. He struck a couple of 90s in the ODI series against Australia before claiming the Man of the Series award in the T20I series where he played as a pure batsman at No. 6 as he was unable to bowl. There were a lot of questions about his position in India’s white-ball side as a specialist bat but he answered all his critics in style.
In fact, with the way he was batting, there were some experts who wanted him to stay back in Australia with the Test team as well. However, skipper Virat Kohli and the team management were very clear that the Baroda all-rounder needs to start bowling to be considered in the Test squad. It looked like Pandya’s break from the Test squad is bound to increase. However, that was when the Indian selectors sprung a big surprise when they included him in the Test squad for the first two Tests against England at home.
Now, the first assumption is going to be that Hardik Pandya is fit enough to bowl. That is exactly what Kohli said after the T20I series when quizzed about Pandya’s exclusion from the Test squad.
“Test cricket is a very different challenge altogether and we need him to bowl. We’ve spoken to him about it. We need him to bowl. That’s when he becomes that one guy who brings a lot of balance for us. If you’ve seen our cricket overseas as well, in South Africa and England, we were able to compete for longer periods through Test matches because of the fact that he brought a lot of balance in terms of his bowling.”
Remember, Pandya hasn’t played a single first-class game since December 2018. It was a Ranji Trophy game where he had to prove his fitness in order to board the flight to Australia for the last two Test matches of the 2018-19 Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
But the real question is that does Team India really need Hardik Pandya, the Test player in their side, especially at home?
My answer would be a resonating no. Yes, he is the X-factor player, he can change the game with both bat and ball. In the absence of star all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, the 27-year-old pace-bowling all-rounder can add some real value. However, there are a few important questions the selectors and the team management need to answer.
There is absolutely no doubt that Pandya is batting beautifully at the moment. However, his bowling remains largely untested. Since he went out for surgery in September 2019, Pandya has barely bowled a handful of overs. In international cricket, the number is four (in the second ODI against Australia).
Moreover, Pandya’s injuries are no secret. After playing 11 Test matches in the span of 13 months, his back issues started to flare up. He has spent more time rehabbing than on the cricket field since he was stretchered off. After the conclusion of the England tour of 2018, India have played 52 ODIs, 34 T20Is and 19 Test matches. Out of these, Pandya has played a mere 16 ODIs and 8 T20Is, that’s a mere 22.85% of the games.
Pandya has not donned the Indian Test jersey in the last two and a half years and India have been excellent without him. Not to say that he wouldn’t have made a difference. Sure, he is a game-changer but India need Hardik Pandya, the white-ball beast more than the Test player. Every time Pandya misses a white-ball game, the balance has gone for a toss. Jadeja’s resurgence with the bat has covered up a bit but he adds a whole new dimension to that Indian middle-order which has had major issues over the last few years.
Moreover, there are multiple important tours and series coming up. The white-ball series against England which just four days after the conclusion of the Test series. There is the IPL before India have another Test series against England, this time in England where Pandya could be more than a handful. Also, the all-important T20 World Cup 2021 in October-November in India.
Thus, India really needs to ask themselves which are the tournaments which are more important and it’s not like they don’t have options in the red-ball format. They have plenty of options even though a few key players are out injured. It may not be in the all-rounders’ department but India have their bases covered.
Also, as they say, you can practice as much as you want in the nets but playing a competitive match is on another level. It brings about the best intensity. Pandya hasn’t had much of bowling to do in matches in a long time now. He could’ve been better off playing some Vijay Hazare Trophy games (India’s domestic 50-over competition) for Baroda where he could’ve slowly worked up his bowling workload and intensity and maybe bowl 10 overs towards the fag end of the tournament.
India’s injury management of Hardik Pandya hasn’t been the greatest. Every time he has come back from injury, he’s picked up another and it has been his lower back that has caused a lot of trouble more often than not. With such a fragile back that Pandya has had over the last couple of years, why would they want to risk another breakdown? And that too in a home series when the side has almost all bases covered.