Hardik Pandya: The New Kapil

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Hardik Pandya is on his way to inherit the mantle of the all-rounder legend

ATTAGASAM, MACHANG. Attagasam.” Roshaan, a Tamil-Muslim college student from Kandy, seated on a shoulder of a grass embankment in the gorgeous Pallekele International Stadium, uttered those words in loop, like a mantra, to anyone who was listening for about five straight minutes. He said it when Hardik Pandya’s six landed about 20 feet to his left, causing a fist-sized crater in the grass. He had said it the previous ball as well, when Pandya’s first six of the Malinda Pushpakumara over, immediately after two consecutive fours, whistled over long-off. And he would go on to say it again a ball later, when Pandya’s third six of the over and fifth boundary hit in five balls, was smoked somewhere beyond long-on.

It wasn’t that Roshaan was lost for words. It was the only way he, or anyone else watching Pandya on that crisp morning in Pallekele, could come close to describing Pandya’s innings; or even describing the revelation that is Pandya the all-rounder. ‘Attagasam’, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘attahas’, means different things in different contexts. Frenzied laughter. Vile jest. Vehemence. But that day, attagasam meant just one thing. Ridiculous.

Everybody who plays cricket for a living these days can tonk boundaries at will. But what made Pandya’s hits, not just those five back-to-back beauties off Pushpakumara but his hyper-aggressive state in the latter half of his knock, stand out was the manner in which they were tonked. When the first three balls of the 116th over had gone for 4, 4 and 6, Sri Lanka’s captain Dinesh Chandimal spread the field out, which is a polite way of saying he turned defensive in the extreme.

When the 116th over began, Pallekele resembled a Test match field. Men packing the in-field, close-in fielders, catchers around the batsman, the odd fielder patrolling the boundary. In other words, proper Test cricket milieu. India, after all, had only one wicket in hand. After Pandya’s first two fours, the fielders at square leg and mid off pushed back to the fence. But it was when the first of the three sixes were hit that Chandimal pressed all nine fielders against the ropes. So, in a Test match, the only active men anywhere near the pitch were the batsman, the wicketkeeper and the bowler.

A lesser player would have bit the bait and nudged the ball around for the free ones and twos on offer until at least a couple of the out-fielders were pulled back in. Not Pandya, who has filled his family’s bank accounts with his ground clearing hits in T20 cricket. The result was something Test cricket hadn’t seen before—monster strokes minus the violence. With his ropey muscles and fast twitch fibers, ectomorph Pandya hurried Test cricket into a future where T20 specialists learn to, well, gently caress big hits.

At the same time, Pandya had moved from 57 to 83 in the space of five balls. While batting with the No11 in his debut series, lest we forget. A couple of overs later, with Chandimal’s field adding to the tally of spectators by eleven, Pandya had his maiden international hundred. It was also his only first-class century, scored not for Baroda in the Ranji Trophy but for India in only his third Test match. Even Virat Kohli couldn’t stop shaking his head in disbelief at the press conference. “It wasn’t just mad slogging. He actually used his brain and batted with the tail which I think is a great sign for us,” Kohli said. “You know, a guy who can get a fifty and a hundred in his first three games batting at number 8 has to have something special in him.”

Pandya’s game is something test cricket hasn't ever seen before—monster strokes minus the violence

Roshaan, however, framed it best when he turned around to a bunch of us from the media present on the embankment and said: “Last two years, India almost perfect. Now, Pandya make India full perfect.” In other words, the final piece of the jigsaw has fallen in place, the missing tessellation being a genuine all-rounder.

Over the last couple of years of dominance, India had assembled, in Roshaan’s words, an ‘almost perfect’ Test team. In Murali Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, they had found three world class openers for the price of two. Cheteshwar Pujara had become arguably the best number three in the modern game, followed in the batting order by Kohli (few arguments regarding his top dog status) at four. And few line-ups mop up with the quality of Ajinkya Rahane at number five. That’s just the batsmen.

Purely as a wicketkeeper, Wriddhiman Saha is perhaps India’s best ever produce (and he is a handy number seven too, what with three centuries and five fifties to his name). In Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami, India boast of something they never could have before—bowling two genuine quicks in tandem. And in R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, India have by far the best right arm and left arm spinners in the world today.

For a while, everyone from the selectors to the spectators desperately hoped that either Ashwin or Jadeja (or both) was being primed by the management to fill the all-rounder void. But the team depended way too heavily on their bowling for either of them to focus more than they already did on their batting. What India needed was a player whose set of skills in one department didn’t overpower the other; a man who wasn’t a specialist batter, bowler or fielder but equally brilliant at all three.

They found him not while combing through the country’s vast first-class crop but inside their own shed, custom-built to the minutest of specifications and raring to go. Pandya had broken into the T20 international dressing room in January 2016 and made his ODI debut in October that year. In both those formats he had pinned down the all-rounder’s role with the immediate permanence of a super glue. This adhesive, then, was surely going to be tried to plaster an age-old crack in the Test team. The leak seems to have been fixed within three games.

Pandya bowls consistently over 135 kmph, quicker than many of India’s opening bowlers in the past two decades. He snapped up four wickets in this series, just two lesser than Umesh Yadav. A truer reflection of his bowling skill is bound to be showcased during India’s next three assignments abroad—South Africa, England and Australia. With the bat, he walks in as low as number eight and is comfortable batting with the tail. In three innings so far, he already has a hundred and a fifty. And as a fielder, he is second to perhaps only Jadeja.

Anyone who had tuned in to the Champion Trophy final wouldn't be surprised by Pandya's pyrotechnics in the Kandy Test Match

“He brings in great balance to the team,” said Kohli, before attempting to flesh out a few of the benefits. “He’s a gun fielder, he’s very handy with the ball, gives you those crucial breakthroughs. And we know what he can do with the bat as well. I don’t think I need to say any more, his performance has spoken for itself.”

Pandya is all of 23, many years away from his prime. His future looks a shade so bright that the shade could only be called ridiculous.

WHEN PANDYA IS not batting, bowling or fielding, he is tousling his hair, unconsciously parting to the left a chrome-streaked tuft. He wears a gold necklace and a diamond the size of a lemon graces one of his earlobes. His teammates call him ‘Rockstar’ and his voice has the heft of one too. In press conferences, he speaks in mundane, mind-numbing cliches. But with a gurgling baritone reminiscent of the late Chris Cornell, Pandya would have our full attention even if he were to read out the contact list from his mobile phone.

At the presser following his hundred in Kandy, Pandya placed himself behind a clutch of mics and Wisden India’s R Kaushik, a journalist who has covered more than a hundred Test matches and understands better than most the challenges that this format poses on both mind and body, began proceedings with a wry one. “Hardik, in your first month at this level you have to your name a fifty, a hundred, wickets, catches and run outs. Is Test cricket really so easy?”

Pandya smiled. Then he leaned into the mic and spoke, words rumbling out from a voicebox ostensibly gargling stones. “No, not at all. But I am pretty glad. God has been pretty kind to me. I got things. I am pretty lucky I got things pretty quickly in life. I am getting whatever I have worked hard for. It is not easy, but I don’t mind it as well.”

Another journalist informed Pandya that MSK Prasad, India’s chief selector, had likened him to India’s finest ever all-rounder, Kapil Dev. This, after Kohli had compared Pandya to the best in the business today, England’s Ben Stokes. “If he says that then it obviously feels good. If someone compares you with such legends, you know,” Pandya paused. “Even if I can be 10 per cent of what he (Kapil) was, I will be pretty happy in my life.”

Pandya is not the first Indian all-rounder in this millennium to realise that Kapil’s glass slippers fit his feet. In fact he isn’t even the first all-rounder from Baroda to try them on. For in the mid-2000s there was Irfan Pathan, Indian cricket’s most sombre cautionary tale. As a teenager in the Indian team, he was the whole package; incredible pace, incredible shots and, best of all, incredible hair. The pace was the first of all his qualities to drop, ending, distressingly, with the hair.

But the chances of Pandya going down the dreaded Pathan path are slim. For one, Pathan was raised in a dressing room straight out of the pages of Lord of the Flies, where coach Greg Chappell further fractured the pre- existing senior-junior divide. “I think that is something that we have gotten rid of totally,” Kohli said. “In this team, we are more like a bunch of friends playing together rather than as a senior or a junior. We don’t even think of the number of games an X has played or a Y has played within the change room. You can joke around with anyone inside the group and that I feel is something that makes me feel most proud of this particular unit.”

Kohli believes that it is this new all-for-one culture in his dressing room that will ensure players like Pandya flourish. “That is the reason why people coming in feel like they don’t have to do anything different from what they know already,” he said. “If you keep the environment like that, then people will take lesser time to go out there and become mature cricketers because they don’t feel any pressure from the group itself.”

Conforming has never been Pandya’s strong suit in any case. No story of his is complete without a mention of his ‘attitude’ that kept him out of several teams while growing up. In an interview with The Indian Express, Pandya admitted: “From U-13 to U-17, I used to be dropped from the junior state team because of this ‘attitude problem’. But I was just an expressive child. If I don’t like something about you, I will say it to your face. That’s why I feel like I am who I am.”

Being himself is precisely why India managed to beat Bangladesh in the World T20 earlier this year, from a most hopeless situation. Pandya, bowling the final over, produced three wickets for the team from the last three balls when Bangladesh needed just two runs to knock India out. He was again only being himself when he walked out to bat at 72 for six in the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan and walloped six sixes in his breathtaking knock of 76. The next best score by an Indian was 22.

Anyone who had tuned in to that match at the Oval wouldn’t have been surprised by his pyrotechnics in this Test match at Kandy. And Kandy has ensured that none of us will bat an eyelid when he indeed takes over the title of ‘next Kapil Dev’. Or better still, when he becomes the best version of himself, the first Hardik Pandya.