In the lead-up to the 50-over World Cup, the Rahul Dravid-led team management experimented with every aspect of the game to keep replacements ready for any eventuality. But they hadn’t bargained for Hardik Pandya.
So when his freak left ankle injury against Bangladesh in Pune ruled him out of the World Cup, Dravid accepted they didn’t have a back-up for the all-rounder.
The medical unit at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) worked overtime to get him back in the park for the business end of the tournament. So much so that captain Rohit Sharma had sounded confident of his return even a couple of days before the Board finally sought his replacement to the World Cup technical committee.
Not wanting to take a chance, the NCA decided on an elaborate rehabilitation process. Pandya is the quintessential pro the team can’t afford to miss in such high-stake events. Following another loss in the final, the focus has obviously shifted to the T20 World Cup in seven months’ time in the West Indies and the US.
On Thursday, Pandya posted a video of his gym sessions on social media, titled “work in progress”. He hasn’t been considered for the three T20Is in South Africa beginning Sunday, and there is no guarantee that he will be available for the series against Afghanistan at home next month.
The logic is simple; the NCA has a larger goal in mind than looking at short-term gains. Going by the current turn of events, Pandya will get an opportunity to get some match practice in the IPL ahead of the T20 World Cup. That is assumed to be enough for him to get back into the groove.
The nucleus of the side at No.6 in the white-ball format, Pandya can provide breakthroughs at critical junctures, his batting notwithstanding. His absence robs the team of the vital sixth bowling option, which has proved to be game-changing at times.
He can also adjust to all surfaces, be it the slow and low pitches of the subcontinent which are similar to those the teams will encounter in the West Indies for the showpiece event, or the fast and bouncy wickets in South Africa or Australia.
The national selectors had bargained for Pandya as the T20 captain in their bid to nurture a young side capable of delivering fearless cricket. But his injury-prone nature has in a way contributed to them falling back on considering Rohit Sharma to lead the side in the World Cup.
There has been no formal announcement yet but the turn of events point to Rohit leading the team in the showpiece event. With not much time in hand, the Ajit Agarkar-led selection committee will stick to the Dravid-Rohit formula for success.
Rohit will also get a first-hand opportunity to assess Pandya’s progress at Mumbai Indians after the all-rounder reunited with his captain at the franchise. Whatever the circumstances, his explosive batting and handy medium pace will be vital in providing balance to the team.
Pandya didn’t miss much of international cricket following his back surgery in 2019, besides being rested as part of workload management. He featured in 38 of the 55 T20Is India played since June 2022.
The team management will get an opportunity to fine-tune the side in the six T20Is in South Africa and against Afghanistan. Pandya didn’t feature in the ODI squad during their last tour in January 2022 but his experience will be sorely missed in the alien conditions this time.
With Rohit deciding to skip the white-ball tour, Suryakumar Yadav has been retained as stand-in captain for the T20Is. Spin isn’t going to be an ideal option there and the team could have to rue Pandya’s absence.
Playing on the hard pitches could be tough for most of the youngsters who are on their maiden tour to South Africa. A dash of experience in Pandya, especially for the young pace brigade, could have been useful.
There’s no doubt that the Indian bowlers will face a tough test from the likes of Aiden Markram and David Miller. The untested brigade will face a serious challenge against the flamboyant home batters who are expected to excel in familiar conditions.
How they fare could shape India’s attack for the World Cup.