India need to be less rigid about selecting Hardik Pandya
Virat Kohli feels safe playing a five-man bowling attack overseas. In each of the seven Tests India have played in South Africa and England this year, Hardik Pandya has been one of the five bowlers. Pandya does not classify himself as either a bowling or a batting allrounder. He wants to be known as just an allrounder.
Let us look at his numbers. In four Tests in England, Pandya has been India's fourth-highest runmaker with 164 at 23.42, including one half-century. He's also taken 10 wickets at 24.70, including a five-wicket haul. Both the fifty and the five-for came in the same Test, in India's victory at Trent Bridge.
Take away the six riotous overs in which he ran through England's middle and lower order in that Test, however, and his bowling figures look a little less impressive - five wickets in five innings at an average of 43.8 and a strike rate of nearly 70. It reflects his reliance on conditions to be penetrative as a bowler.
In Southampton, where there wasn't as much help for the quicker bowlers, he was only trusted with 17 overs over the two England innings, picked up just the one wicket, and went at over a run a ball in the first innings. At Edgbaston, Kohli didn't use Pandya at all in the second innings, not even as a potential partnership-breaker when Sam Curran was rescuing England from 87 for 7.
Kohli, then, hasn't shown faith in Pandya to bowl in all conditions, despite picking him in every Test of India's overseas cycle so far. In 12 innings in South Africa and England, he has delivered 115.1 overs - that's less than ten overs per innings - and taken 14 wickets.
Those figures suggest Pandya is a batting allrounder capable of making an impact with the ball in helpful conditions rather than the pure allrounder he wants to be known as. Those figures would be more than acceptable if he was pulling his weight with the bat, but that hasn't always been the case.
In Southampton, for instance, he came in at No. 7 in the first innings and fell to a loose shot, just when Moeen Ali was looking dangerous and needed to be tackled with a little more care. In the second innings he was pushed up to No. 6, coming in after a century stand between Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, which had given India a 50-50 chance in a chase of 245. His early dismissal - squared up by Ben Stokes - showed his technical limitations, and put England right back on top.
With those technical limitations, Pandya isn't yet capable of consistently batting at No. 6. He has been working on his batting, aiming at becoming sounder technically. But his best work so far has come when he has played instinctively, played his shots, and transferred the pressure back onto the opposition. The end goal should be for Pandya to tighten his defence while continuing to be a positive-minded player, but he isn't there yet.
And while he keeps making efforts to get there, it's important for India to be flexible about when to play Pandya. Kohli will need to better weigh the pros and cons of Pandya versus a specialist bowler or batsman in the given conditions.
On the eve of the Southampton Test, Kohli himself said he expected the pitch to take turn from the footmarks as the match went on, hinting at the possibility of playing an extra spinner. Come match day, however, India went in with the same combination as at Trent Bridge. As it happened, Kohli's prediction of spin playing a crucial role came true; Moeen Ali, just as he was at the same venue against the same opposition in 2014, was England's match-winner, picking up nine wickets in the match.
For India, R Ashwin, who looked less than 100% fit having picked up a hip niggle at Trent Bridge, bowled 51.5 overs across the two innings and only picked up three wickets. On the fourth morning, before the start of play, Ravindra Jadeja made a close inspection of the wear and tear at the Pavilion End. Would it not have been better for India to have played Jadeja rather than Pandya? With all the wear and tear on the surface, all India could do then was imagine - imagine the effect Jadeja could have had against England's seven left-handers, ripping the ball into them from the rough outside the off stump.
At Edgbaston, India benched Cheteshwar Pujara. Given it was the first Test, and that the fast bowlers would come into it with fresh legs, and given the conditions that transpired - where the four main bowlers made enough of an impact for Pandya's bowling to not be that much of a factor - wouldn't India have been better served with an extra batsman?
Leaving Pandya out in Southampton would have been harder than at Edgbaston, given he was coming off a brilliant all-round display at Trent Bridge. But didn't England send Sam Curran, Player of the Match in the first Test, back to Surrey when they had both Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes fit and available for the third Test in Nottingham? It did not do any damage to Curran, who came back hungrier in the fourth Test and made a match-turning impact once again.
Pandya is an integral member of India's Test squad and deserves to be part of the dressing room. He remains India's best allrounder. He will probably be more effective on the harder, flatter pitches India will likely play on in Australia later this year. His batting technique may not be tested as severely, and he might be more required as a workhorse with the ball. He could even get more purchase out of the old, reverse-swinging Kookaburra.
But as he continues evolving as a Test allrounder, it's important India use him wisely, and less rigidly. It will only help his and the team's growth.