The Economic Times - - Sports: The Great Games - Chetan Narula

The all-rounder is af­forded time and space to grow as player

As In­dia looked for some quick, im­pact­ful runs from the lower or­der, Hardik Pandya went af­ter the bowlers for big hits. He was caught at long off, and then cursed him­self in agony all the way back to the pavil­ion. That was in the sec­ond Test at the Sin­halese Sports Club (SSC) ground in Colombo where he holed out for 20 runs off 20 balls.

In the first Test at Galle, Pandya had recorded a maiden Test half-cen­tury scor­ing 50 off 49 balls as he shep­herded the tail. It has been a short ca­reer so far, but these two in­nings per­haps pro­vide a mi­cro­cos­mic view of how Pandya’s Test ca­reer is ex­pected to progress. Loads of big hits, quick runs, with some glory and an­guish thrown in good mea­sure if not equally. The com­mon point be­tween the two in­nings was that he bat­ted at no.8 in both Galle and Colombo. A school of thought asks why isn’t he bat­ting fur­ther up, ahead of R Ash­win if not Wrid­dhi­man Saha? Isn’t Pandya in the squad be­cause of his mer­cu­rial all-rounder role? This is where a bit of con­text is needed.

Since the West Indies’ tour, in 19 Tests, In­dia have scored tall on umpteen oc­ca­sions. They have three 400-plus scores, three­more500-pluss­cores,ahu­mon­gous­five600-pluss­cores and also crossed the 700-mark in Chen­nai owing to Karun Nair’s stun­ning triple hun­dred.

There are two fac­tors at play here. One, of course, is the in­put into the lower-or­der bat­ting. In­dia have in­vested in five bowlers more of­ten than not, and thus they are heav­ily re­liant on their lower or­der bats­men to score runs. The lat­ter have re­sponded to this call from the team man­age­ment with the in­crease in av­er­ages of Ash­win (34.78 up from 32.85), Saha (45.56 up from 33.21) and even Ravin­dra Jadeja (41.43 up from 29.89) re­flected from last summer on­wards.

The sec­ond fac­tor is in re­gards with how the team man­age­ment sees its lower-or­der bats­men, each per­form­ing a speci­fi­c­role.Itis­be­stre­flecte­d­in­howSa­ha­has­go­neon­from strength­tostrength­on­cethes­trate­gicde­ci­sion­tochange­his bat­ting po­si­tion was made.

It was in 2015, the last time In­dia toured Sri Lanka, when Saha was try­ing to es­tab­lish him­self as the No.1 keeper/bats­man choice af­ter MS Dhoni’s re­tire­ment. The re­sults weren’t ad­e­quate. Saha scored 131 runs in four in­nings here and then fluffed his chances with 83 runs in 6 in­nings against South Africa later at home.

Then, in the first Test against West Indies at An­tigua last year, Ash­win came out to bat at No.6 ahead of Saha. Clearly, the team wanted some­one to drop an­chor and bat deep whilst Saha was free to at­tack lower down the or­der. In short, he was given free­dom to bat lower down the or­der. “It is not about in­di­vid­ual pref­er­ences,” the Ben­gal keeper said in Colombo this past week. “Each of us are as­signed a bat­ting spot and we are ex­pected to per­form a par­tic­u­lar role. The team as­signs us on the ba­sis of our abil­ity.”

Cyn­ics may ar­gue that Test cricket isn’t about play­ing in your com­fort zone. It is hard to ar­gue with that rea­son­ing. How­ever, the In­dian team man­age­ment has the ex­am­ple of Jadeja to cite as well. For a long time since he first burst onto the Test scene in 2012-13, the left-han­der was asked to be some­one he was not — a de­pend­able lower-or­der bats­man that he is to­day. Never mind those three Ranji triple­hun­dreds, Jadeja’s record in the first half of his 32-Test ca­reer thus far was in­dica­tive of the wide chasm be­tween do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional cricket.

In sum­ma­tion, these two un­der­ly­ing points give enough

rea­son­ing why Pandya walked out to bat at no.8 in both the first and sec­ond Test. As much as can be fore­seen, the team man­age­ment will stick with this bat­ting or­der in the near fu­ture as well. It is a clear strate­gic in­vest­ment in Pandya, who is an at­tack­ing bats­man. The mes­sage from the dress­ing room is clear – go play your nat­u­ral game. He has been given a li­cense to learn in his own man­ner but within the time­frame of a hec­tic in­ter­na­tional cricket sched­ule.

Given that In­dia are set to tour South Africa, Eng­land and Aus­tralia in 2018, Vi­rat Kohli clearly doesn’t want to make the same mis­take with Pandya that MS Dhoni per­haps made with Jadeja.

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