At his best, few do what Hardik Pandya does. His gifts are rare and several — like hitting the first ball he faces out of the ground; like whipping up a six-hitting carnage, like clocking 140 kph with his first ball; like seaming at this pace in favourable conditions. He can wear several garbs — that of the selfless, single-ticking sidekick for Virat Kohli; that of the tie-end-up support act for Jasprit Bumrah, a finisher with the bat as well as the ball. On seaming surfaces, he can move the ball both ways; on sluggish decks, he unleashes his cutters and slower balls; he brings balance and ballast, but only when he is at his best.
Pandya is like a lab-designed multitasking specimen of a cricketer, but for a body that wilts in the cauldron of international cricket. There could be players more skilled than him in individual facets. But as a wholesome package, men like him are rare. More so for a country where fast-bowling all-rounders rarely sprout; even if they do, not with Pandya-like pedigree. Little wonder then that coaches, captain, fans, or whoever is closely monitoring Indian cricket, keep a tab on him, even though he last played a Test three years ago, and his appearances in white-ball cricket are sporadic of late. Even in those games, he seemed like an imposter of his peak years.
In his injury-free glory days, Pandya frequently influenced games. Among those that have made their debuts after he has — in 2016—no one has managed to score runs at a strike rate of 116. Combined with an average of 32 for someone who bats at no. 6 or 7, he was indeed a real deal. In this span, only Rohit Sharma has struck more sixes in the 50-over-game than him either (54). Pandya wreaked pure destruction in his last few knocks — the 76-balled 90 in Sydney, the 92 not out of the same number of balls in Canberra, or the whirlwind 63 from 44 balls against England in Pune. Those were knocks that lend credence to the theory of picking him purely for his big-hitting prowess.
Before injuries stymied him, Pandya’s bowling was equally impactful. He filled in mostly as the third seamer, operated at the death and when handed the new ball, regularly nabbed wickets too. Like on his 50-over debut in Dharamsala when he ran through New Zealand’s top order, or his thrifty spells during the 2017 Champions Trophy and in South Africa (2018). But a cameo bowler as he is now, bereft of his old pace and venom, he is no longer an automatic in the eleven or the squad. So just as Pandya is in search of his old self, so are the selectors in a quest to find an alternative or replacement, not his carbon copy maybe, but at least someone who could fill in the multiple roles he could. Several of them could be thrust into the Pandya role with an eye on the 2023 World Cup.
Like for like (?): Shardul Thakur
Thakur can bat, and in present form is a better bowler than Pandya. He might not have the pace of Pandya, but is crafty, with a knack of producing the right ball at the right time. He has a whole palette of white-ball tricks to pick from, headlined by a knuckle-ball, and could put in an impressive shift with the new ball too. But in the 50-over format, he is primarily a bowler who can bat. In 10 innings, he has already smacked a half-century, averages 39.40 and scores at 127. But it’s preposterous to consider him a like-for-like replacement for Pandya, for three reasons. A) He has never played under the all-rounder tag, which is a burden. B) Most of his runs have come in relatively pressure-free environments. Though useful, his runs did not make a massive difference in the end. C) There was no pressure of expectations.
So, one will have to wait till he replicates those efforts in a crunch situation before a judgment could be passed.
A question of batting: Washington Sundar
His utility with the ball, though different, is on par with peak Pandya. He can take the new ball, pick wickets, apply the choke in the middle overs and bowl in the last 10. He is a dogged batsman too, but the big question is whether he could orchestrate mayhem like Pandya. Sundar’s strike rates in T20s (119) and List A (79) suggest that his approach is more orthodox than postmodern. But he is 22, with oodles of potential, and could be manufactured into a big-hitting all-rounder in the Pandya mould before the next World Cup.
Similar, not same: Ravindra Jadeja
Whether Pandya plays or not, Jadeja is a guaranteed starter. With the ball, his role is different — he is a spinner and primarily a middle-over thrift merchant. Like Pandya, he can freewheel, but not from ball one. These days, he takes his time before teeing off. He has sacrificed some of his dash in his pursuit to transform into a Test-match all-rounder. In recent outings in 50-over cricket, Jadeja did rekindle some old enterprise, but can he whip up such fury on a consistent basis? Besides, the general feeling is that one needs two finishers/late-order explosive batsmen in a team.
A question of bowling: Deepak Hooda
Hooda struck the right notes on his debut on Sunday, showing maturity under pressure while scoring an unbeaten 26. After an erratic phase, he has matured and seems equipped to deal with the quality at the international level, but the big question mark is whether he can bowl. A handy off-spinner, a regular in the Indian Premier League, after his action was cleared a few years ago, much depends on whether he could regularly chip in with a few stingy overs. India already have too many batsmen who don’t bowl. Besides, he has yet to replicate his big-hitting skills at the international level. ODIs, when compared to IPL, are a different kettle of fish.
The outsider: Shahrukh Khan
The 26-year-old from Chennai could be destructive with the bat and is fairly consistent in this format (List A), but international cricket is a step up. The bowlers he encounters would be quicker and smarter. He has not made much of an impact in the IPL either. Besides, his all-round potential is limited, and is rarely summoned in domestic cricket. But if the selectors are in pursuit of someone who could go berserk without fussing around, he is an option. He needs grooming though.
None of these five names, or the recalled Rishi Dhawan or the snubbed Vijay Shankar, are quite like Pandya. But until Pandya starts doing what he does, the chase for a big-hitting all-rounder would be on.