After a highly-anticipated return from injury, two AB de Villiers shots in the last two matches stood out. The first from Wanderers, when he played a wild pull and stuck the ball straight down fine-leg fielder’s throat off a nothing ball, and then the second, dabbing away at a decent delivery outside off-stump but without much feet movement only to be caught behind cheaply.
Just like that, Hardik Pandya had dismissed South Africa’s most lethal batsman twice in two innings. In a series where Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have wreaked unprecedented havoc, on a tour where Jasprit Bumrah has been India’s stand-out bowler, a betting man wouldn’t have placed money on this to happen twice in succession. Yes, strange things have happened in the game of cricket and this ought to go down as another such instance.
To his merit though, Pandya has evolved as a bowler from the start of this tour. Never mind the lack of contribution with the bat ever since the first innings in Cape Town, he has been ever-present whenever Virat Kohli has thrown the ball to him. It might not have resulted in a high number of wickets, sure, and for good reason. Centurion was not conducive to his bowling, while there was no need for him to bowl in the third Test at Wanderers given India had four full-time pacers playing.
Yet, Pandya has fitted in well with the holding role the Indian team management has wanted him to play, especially in the longer format. Even if his spells have only allowed a breather to the main bowlers, Pandya hasn’t let the game (or situation in any session of Test cricket) get away from his grasp.
In the restricted environment of this ODI series, Pandya has even been an aggressor. Certainly, his spells in the last two matches at Wanderers and Port Elizabeth have suggested nothing less. In the Pink ODI, India were hampered by rain as Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar had bowled four overs each by resumption of play. Kohli was restricted in how he could use them again. In that light, Pandya did an immaculate job even if India lost (owing more to circumstances than poor bowling).
At St George’s Park though, Pandya really shone through. The Indian bowling revolved around him. Despite the threat of rain, the match wasn’t truncated and India needed their fifth bowler to put his hand up to get through 50 overs. Kohli’s plan was to not bowl Chahal and Yadav in tandem, instead to use them in summation with Pandya and it worked, much to his credit.
“It was very important to win with five bowlers. It will give a lot of confidence to those guys. Even in Johannesburg, it was a shortened game. Anything could have happened if we had got a full game. But we have confidence in those five bowlers that we played. Hardik has come a long way since he made his debut. He understands what the team expects of him. He is a proper all-rounder. Not a batsman who can bowl or a bowler who can bat, we expect him to come out and bowl 10 overs all the time,” said vice captain Rohit Sharma after the historic series win.
The fact that he talked about using only five bowlers underlines the aforementioned point. In most situations, Chahal comes on to bowl in the 11th over. Yadav too comes on before the 20th over. It is because Kohli has Kedar Jadhav in the bank should things go awry with Pandya’s ten overs. In case he gets taken for runs, or simply if the pitch is too conducive to spin, there is always the option to fall back on the part-time pie-chucking spinner who has a knack for picking wickets.
For the last two games, Jadhav has been unavailable owing to his hamstring injury. The big problem for the Indian team management currently is that they don’t have anybody else to bowl a few overs with some consistency. Rohit and Shreyas Iyer are known to bowl some spin, and Kohli can bowl seam up. But if India have to call up any of this trio to bowl, then surely the situation is desperately getting out of hand (remember Champions Trophy game against Sri Lanka?)
The merits and demerits of Jadhav’s continued selection in the playing eleven is a debate for another day. So is the fact that India do not have a sixth bowling option in his absence, something any captain would like to have at his disposal in the unpredictable limited-overs’ formats. Sure, in Jadhav’s absence, the attack isn’t one-dimensional given the different qualities of all five bowlers, yet there is an element of repetition about it.
Again though, this is about India playing with five bowlers and making it work. The very basis of this plan was dependent on the all-rounder, and Pandya rose to the occasion, particularly in the last two games. The slow pitch, especially in the fifth ODI, played into his hands because he could use clever changes of pace and off-cutters to greater effect.
Perhaps it was the pressure of having failed with the bat. Maybe, it was just the sense of lack of a back up plan should he fail to produce the goods with the ball too. Make no mistake though this was a step up in every sense of the word for Pandya the all-rounder. In the build-up to the 2019 World Cup, India ought to play more with this same formula if only to aid the progression of Pandya the bowler.
That, in doing so, they will also benefit from growth of their five-pronged first-choice bowling attack as a whole is an add-on bonus.