India’s most accomplished all-rounder, Kapil Dev, gave Hardik Pandya his ODI cap—a fitting start for the newest candidate to slot into the ever-elusive all-rounder’s spot in the Indian One Day team— on Sunday. Pandya did not disappoint; M.S. Dhoni handed him the new ball in the opening encounter of the five-match ODI series against New Zealand in Dharamsala on Sunday, and the 22-year-old bowler hit the deck running. In his very first over, he had the Kiwis playing, missing, and on the back foot.
In the end, Pandya’s 3 for 31 helped India canter to an easy victory and also earned him the Man-of-the-Match award.
Not bad for a bowler who, just ten months ago, made his Twenty20 debut with a nervy first over which lasted 11 balls with five wides and was so expensive that Dhoni took him off immediately.
“After the IPL, I was out for two months. I worked hard on my game and that helped me. I got to know about my game and the areas I needed to improve,” Pandya told BCCI.tv before the match. “I wanted to work on my bowling and wanted to be more consistent at it and also get better at batting.”
Just the kind of thing Dhoni wants to hear—at the post-match press conference, the skipper was all praise for Pandya’s newfound abilities as a bowler: “He can swing the ball even on the wickets where some of the other bowlers don’t get that kind of swing,” Dhoni said. “He’s somebody who can get the purchase off the wicket so we wanted to give him a go with the new ball.
According to Pandya’s brother Krunal, the Baroda bowler has worked very hard on his fitness and because of that he is now bowling in the 140kmph, up by roughly 10kmph from his earlier top speed.
“He is now 5-10 yards quicker and on Sunday some of the bowls he bowled were quicker than Umesh Yadav,” says Krunal, who watched the Dharamshala ODI from his hotel room in Mumbai.
It was another fine India all-rounder, and his current Baroda captain Irfan Pathan, who saw the potential in Pandya a couple of years ago. In 2015, during an interview with Pathan in New Delhi, a shy young man stood behind my cameraperson and watched intently. Once the interview was over, Pathan introduced me to the man, a member of Baroda’s Ranji Trophy squad. “He is very talented,” Pathan told me. “He will be playing for India soon.”
A couple of months later, Pandya, was picked up at the base price by the Mumbai Indians team during the Indian Premier League (IPL) auctions. It turned out to be an inspired buy. Pandya burst on to the scene with some fine performances for Mumbai, including a couple of match-winning innings with the bat. He was then rewarded with a place in the Indian Twenty20 (T20) team for Australia in January this year. Pathan was right on his money. As a senior player for Vadodara, Pathan has been an idol and a mentor to Pandya for some time now.
“I am privileged to have somebody like him in my life,” says Pandya. “I remember when he came back from a Champions Trophy and was playing a league match in Vadodara. I was visualizing how to play a pull shot on his short ball and he somehow got a little offended. My brother was umpiring in that match and Irfan asked him who I was trying to impress. Then, I hit him for 24 runs in one over. He was hugely impressed.”
There is yet another reason why Pathan took Pandya under his wing: They have similar stories of scrambling their way out of poverty through cricket. Just like Pathan and his brother Yusuf, Pandya and his brother Krunal both picked up cricket at an early age, encouraged by their father. When Pandya was 5 and Krunal 7, their father Himanshu travelled with them from their home in Surat to Vadodara to enrol them in former Indian wicketkeeper Kiran More’s academy. It was a blind plunge for the Pandya family—to make the move, Himanshu had to wind down his small car-finance business. “My father used to take us on his bike to the academy, which was 25km away from our house,” Pandya recalls. “We were struggling a lot but there was a strong belief that eventually cricket will take care of everything. And it did.”
As he developed as a player and grew older, Pandya helped the family by playing for money in local matches and village tournaments. “Till just two years back, I would be invited to play for Rs400 a match in the villages around Vadodara,” said Pandya just before the T20 World Cup.
The drive to make the brothers into cricketers was so strong that Himanshu was not discouraged by Pandya’s increasingly poor performances in school; when he failed in class IX, Pandya quit school altogether to focus on the sport. “Dad’s dream was that we should play for India, and when I left school, I had no option but to succeed in cricket,” recalled Pandya.
So far, in a first-class career which is barely two seasons old, Pandya’s statistics are just about middling. But he is not a man with a modest ambition. “I want to play for the country in all formats,” Pandya says. “I have been an admirer of Jacques Kallis (the former South African all-rounder) and can bat like him in any position ranging from No.3 to No.7. I am equally comfortable with the new ball and the old ball.”
Pandya’s real journey has just begun now. India is desperately looking for an all-rounder ( a Kapil or Kallis looks unlikely) and he has the opportunity to do what his hero Irfan used to do it for Dhoni a few years back.
“We wanted to give him a go with the new ball. We just have 8 games before Champions Trophy,” Dhoni said in the post-match conference. “So we would like to see how he reacts under different conditions and situations. How quickly he can adapt to the conditions. If he keeps on performing like what he did today I don’t see why we won’t pick him as the first of the three fast bowlers.”
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.