All-round challenge: The toughest job in world cricket
India’s inability to find a pace-bowling all-rounder to replace Hardik Pandya is just another chapter to this depleting breed amid ever increasing workloads
If Hardik Pandya doesn’t play Test cricket again, he won’t stop regaling his son with stories of the Trent Bridge Test of 2018 when his 25-year-old self, delivered a true-blue all-round performance (5/28 and 52*) in a winning cause. That’s when so many in Indian cricket had prophesied - more in hope than belief – that Hardik would be the next Kapil Dev. A fallacy that it was, Pandya played only one more Test after that to take his career tally to 11. Kapil played 131 Tests at a stretch; missing only one, and not for fitness reasons.
In as much as it speaks of Kapil’s remarkable fitness values, the workload of the present-day player is fast making the gig undoable; certainly, across formats, where being an all-rounder means double the work not just on match-day but also in training. It came as no surprise when India couldn’t find a replacement close-enough to Pandya’s caliber (1789 runs, Avg 34.01 and 84 wkts, Avg 35.23 in ODIs) in the World Cup, after his ankle injury did not heal in time. They chose to boost their fast bowling’ reserves.
Indian cricket has also not shown any inclination to try and create back-ups for Pandya. If T20 is the currency in circulation, the introduction of Impact player rule in the last IPL and its continuation in the recently concluded Mushtaq Ali T20s is doing little to help build an all-rounders pool.
From the time Pandya arrived to the international scene in 2016, the few to have been trialled by India are Vijay Shankar and Venkatesh Iyer. Both military-medium, they failed to leave an impact. Shardul Thakur is mostly picked for a very specialized role that restricts him to playing Test cricket in SENA countries on specific pitches. In the current World Cup campaign, he’s been a side-show.
Not just in India, there are less than a handful of pace bowling all-rounders that fit the definition, left in the world game. And for reasons, separate from the other, very few have been able to leave an impact in the ongoing World Cup. Fast bowling on Indian pitches is a highly skilled job and part-time bowlers can be found out very easily.
Ben Stokes, arguably the best going around, has been hobbling through England’s dismal campaign and is waiting to get his knee repaired. Angelo Matthews, the sole survivor from 2011 World Cup runners-up’ Sri Lankan squad is now in his last legs, bowling smartly, but only slow-medium. Australia’s Mitch Marsh has had one strong performance (121) with the bat against Pakistan, but he’s been required to bowl only 7 overs in 6 matches.
Among the younger crop, Cameron Green hasn’t been trusted with enough game time. Sam Curran – his father Kevin experienced first-hand how good Kapil was in 1983, more on that later - continues to find the switch from T20 to ODI cricket difficult. Only Marco Jansen has both runs (141, Avg 39.25) and wickets (17), Avg 24.41 to show. Taking a thrashing against India in the last match, the tall South African is still far from being a finished article.
It is hoped, if this lot can find their bearings, perhaps they may be able to prevent a complete erosion of fast bowling all-rounders. Or is that wishful to think, when you consider the rapid spread of T20s in the calendar?
T20s, entertaining as they are, encourage a very different all-rounders’ genre. One where escaping boundary-hits is sometimes a win for a fast bowler, going after wickets not always the motto. Where there is no such thing as a moral victory; a game-changing impact can be left by a stream of powerful mis-hits, if they sail over the boundary.
One reason ODI World Cups are difficult to abandon, despite T20’s natural appeal, is their rich history and the number of vintage match-winning performances that have gone into Hall of Fame. None bigger than India’s young captain with rustic looks, who walked in at Tunbridge Wells against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup with his team tottering on 17/5, to go on and stroke an unbeaten 175 with an odd-shaped Slazenger bat to spark a dream to an underconfident nation. Or Wasim Akram’s heroics at the 1992 World Cup final where his 18-ball 33 and 3/49 including two magic balls, which are perhaps yet to be bettered on a stage as grand as that one. There was also Ian Botham,39, defying age, fitness and form with his 4/31 and 53 against old enemy Australia in the same World Cup.
Perhaps, only those of a certain age may relate to the spectacle of watching Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Botham and Kapil in their prime. But even the next generation, the likes of Steve Waugh, Shaun Pollock, Andrew Flintoff and Jacques Kallis kept the lamp burning. In the T20 age, the lights are flickering fast.
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