Ever since Manoj Prabhakar retired in 1996, India have been searching for a seam-bowling all-rounder who would give them the much-needed balance, especially in alien conditions. Team India has always been blessed with batsmen of the highest order, but has struggled in its pursuit of a player who could bowl at a reasonable pace and contribute with the bat. Robin Singh did the role to some extent in the one-day cricket, so too Sourav Ganguly and Irfan Pathan for a shorter duration. Well, it seems the prayers of the Indian fans have been finally answered with the arrival of Hardik Pandya.
The Baroda player is someone who is a genuine seam-bowling all-rounder unlike the bits-and-pieces cricketers tried out by India in the past such as J.P. Yadav and Stuart Binny. Pandya can bowl genuinely quick, is electrifying on the field, and can change the course of a game with his explosive batting. To top it all, he's only 23 and is confidence personified.
His whirlwind 83 off 66 balls, in addition to two vital wickets, in the first One-Day International against Australia in Chennai on Sunday was an example of his match-winning ability. Pandya lifted India from a precarious 87/5 in the company of the ever-cool M.S. Dhoni and turned the game on its head with his brutal hitting. Pandya can murder the spin bowlers and he took Australian leggie Adam Zampa to the cleaners. The right-hander backs himself to clear any ground in the world and once he's in the mood there's no stopping him.
Hat-trick of sixes
Sunday's assault on Zampa when he smashed three consecutive sixes in an over was the fourth such instance Pandya had done it in intentional cricket this season. He did it in the two matches against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, off left-arm spinner Imad Wasim and leggie Shadab Khan, and against Sri Lanka's left-arm tweaker Malinda Pushpakumara en route to his maiden Test hundred in his only third match.
Pandya is unfazed by any challenge and has confidence aplenty. This was on view when he gave Pakistan a scare in the Champions Trophy final when the rest of his team-mates threw in the towel. Pandya is thinking cricketer too. As a bowler, he was someone who relied more on the short-pitched stuff, but he has realized the importance of variations and added the knuckle ball to his armory. This subtle change accounted for Travis Head after Pandya had snared Australian skipper Steve Smith in a rain-curtailed chase at Chepauk Sunday night and these twin strikes went a long way in India scoring a comfortable win to draw first blood in the five-match series.
These are still early days for Pandya in international cricket, but the good thing is that he'll only improve with more experience under his belt. Indian captain Virat Kohli believes he can become India's Ben Stokes - the leading all-rounder in world cricket - and play a big role in his side's pursuit to attain greatness, especially in Test matches abroad. There will be occasions, particularly outside the subcontinent, where Pandya will struggle, but the signs are encouraging and India has unearthed a special talent indeed. Now, the key is to nurture him, for Pandya is a long-term investment.