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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

ICC World Cup 2019: Game changer in bits and pieces

ICC World Cup 2019: The last time India played a World Cup, albeit in the twenty-over format in 2016, Pandya made us suspend our sense of belief.

cricket Updated: May 28, 2019 22:14 IST
Aditya Iyer (Chief Cricket Writer)
Aditya Iyer (Chief Cricket Writer)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
India's Hardik Pandya celebrates after bowling out New Zealand's Ross Taylor.
India's Hardik Pandya celebrates after bowling out New Zealand's Ross Taylor.(AFP)

Hardik Pandya lives a life of sparkling contradictions. He is Indian but believes he is West Indian; presumably from Trinidad (he calls Kieron Pollard his “brother from another mother”, the vowels elongated so that “brother” sounds like “broda”). His idea of individual identity, as he once stated in a newspaper interview, is wearing sunglasses at night. And he is a cricketer who somehow managed to land in hot water in a Bollywood talk-show.

But when those contradictions are channelled outward, on to the cricket field, they work to his advantage. He is a man of slender, ropey arms but cracks the ball further than many of the muscular six hitters in the game. He began his career as a T20 gun-for-hire allrounder who took almost no time to establish his presence in India’s Test set-up. And when the going gets tough, real tough, it is Pandya, a man who is neither a specialist with the bat or the ball, who comes to the fore.

The last time India played a World Cup, albeit in the twenty-over format in 2016, Pandya made us suspend our sense of belief. Here he did it with the ball. Bangladesh needed two runs to knock India out of the tournament. After being smacked for consecutive fours, Pandya got two wickets in two balls; on his third ball, there was a run out. And the last time India played a 50-overs ICC major in England, the Champions Trophy in 2017, Pandya made us suspend belief once more, this time with the bat.

READ: MS Dhoni best suited at No 5 for India, says Sachin Tendulkar

When Pandya walked in to bat in the semi-final, India was 54 for 5 and had essentially already lost the chase of Pakistan’s total of 338. But for a short while when Pandya was at the crease, he made even the Pakistanis believe that an India win could just be possible. Six sixes and four fours got him to a 42-ball 76, and many who witnessed the ferocity of it still say that, had Ravindra Jadeja not run him out, India was in the reckoning. Quite a statement, given Virat Kohli’s team lost by 180 runs.

Back in those days, Pandya was India’s only fast bowling all-rounder of worth but now the country has unearthed another. And unlike Pandya, we do not know very much about Vijay Shankar. Not only because he hasn’t quite lived the public life like Pandya has but mainly because he hasn’t played all that much for India. Still, when the national selectors announced India’s World Cup squad of 15 the other day, chief selector, MSK Prasad, made it a point to mention that Shankar, who has played all of nine ODIs with a top score of 46 and has taken a total of two wickets, has not only made the cut but will, in all likelihood, play at Number4; this when he hasn’t batted higher than Number 5 for the country in the format.

So, what do we really know about Shankar apart from the fact that his cricket-loving father converted the terrace of his house in Madipakkam in Chennai into a functional indoor nets, and that he was once an off-spinner who turned to pace almost overnight to break into the spin-heavy state team of Tamil Nadu? Very little. And in the same vein, those who have watched him exclusively in India’s colours don’t know very much about the cricketer he is either. Shankar isn’t the unidimensional slogger he has made himself out to be. On the domestic circuit, he can anchor an innings if he chooses to, averaging nearly 48 in 41 first-class matches and 36.65 runs a game in List A cricket.

Yet, with Shankar, there are more questions than answers. Will the promotion to Number 4 work? And if it doesn’t, does it make sense to play two similarly skilled all-rounders in the eleven, especially in a team that has two, if not three, world-class fast bowlers? The answers, unfortunately, will reveal itself at a stage where the team cannot afford replies in the negative.

All-rounders, to put it bluntly, augur well for India at World Cups it has won.

In 2011, Yuvraj Singh scored 362 runs (including a crucial hundred against the West Indies and an even more crucial fifty in the quarterfinal that defeated Australia for the first time at the World Cups in 12 years), took 15 wickets and pretty much handed India the trophy. But the composition of the 2019 team is more like the one that won in 1983, where Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath, Roger Binny, Madan Lal and, to a lesser extent, Ravi Shastri, the current coach, contributed with both bat and ball.

READ: Exclusive: Switching on & off will be the key at World Cup 2019 - Tendulkar

Apart from Pandya and Shankar, India has at its disposal Ravindra Jadeja, who is more a bowler than a batsman (fact: the last time he struck an ODI fifty was in September 2014), and the fit-again Kedar Jadhav, who can chip in with a few overs. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, too, is no slouch with the bat. But neither Jadhav nor Jadeja will be held accountable for not coming good with their weaker set of skills. So, the onus to be truly three-dimensional, chief selector MSK Prasad’s new favourite word, is on Pandya and Shankar and them alone.

Pandya hasn’t been the ODI all-rounder he once was and even missed India’s final preparatory series against Australia with a stiff lower back. But going purely by his performances in the past majors and also his return to form in the Indian Premier League, Pandya is likelier to be Kohli’s go-to all-rounder, his ace-in-the-hole. But this isn’t a slight on Shankar. Be assured that whichever way the wind may blow for Shankar over the next couple of months, we will know a whole lot more about him than we do now. With little evidence of his ability to float and yet thrown into the deepest end—a World Cup—Shankar will tell us just what he is made of.

First Published: May 23, 2019 10:12 IST

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