Lucknow: You feel the significance of someone only in their absence. The Indian cricket team has felt it before and it’s feeling again.In a team littered with larger-than-life superstars, it’s Hardik Pandya who has proven to be the most important cog in their wheel.
As the medical staff at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru leaves nothing to chance to get in shape the most discussed ankle in India over the last one week, the Indian team here is sweating it out during practice sessions to overcome the all-rounder’s unavailability while the team management is burning the midnight oil to draw up a strategy to fill the vacuum.
It’s strange that the player who has batted just once and bowled 16.3 overs in four matches – scoring 11 n.o. and taking five wickets – in the ongoing ICC Men’s World Cup, should be so indispensable to a team. In that lies Hardik’s importance to the side. Even when his performances appear so insignificant compared to a few other star players, it’s the balance that he brings – batting at No. 6 and doing the third or fourth seamer’s duty – which allows the team to play the brand of cricket it wishes to.
“Yeah, obviously, he (Hardik) is an important player for us and he is an important all-rounder, so it helps us really balance our squad out really well,” head coach Rahul Dravid said ahead of the New Zealand game, the first match Hardik had to sit out in the competition. “I mean, in the end, we’ve got to work with the 14 that we’ve got. Sometimes you do expect that these kinds of things can happen, so that’s why you have got a squad. We will have to see what works best for these conditions and these wickets. But yeah, probably might not have the kind of balance that we used in the first four games.”
Hardik provides insurance to the batting department in case of a top-order collapse — like against Australia — and bowls enough overs to augment an off-day from a specialist bowler. His absence curtails the freedom that India have played with so far. Against New Zealand, India were off to a now-customary blazing start but lost a few wickets in reasonably quick succession. It’s only the brilliance of Virat Kohli and the batting smarts of Ravindra Jadeja that helped them protect the long tail from being exposed until victory was in their pocket. But in a tournament as long as this, you are never too far away from enduring that dreaded day, and pray it’s not in a knockout game.
There is of course Shardul Thakur, but he isn’t in the same category as Hardik who can walk in as a batter alone or as a bowler alone. One of the strongest and finest athletes, Hardik brings that verve and purpose to the field. His athleticism adds energy to the group and his enthusiasm is infectious. As a package, the 30-year-old is an irresistible force that India can’t do without. But given their place in the table, the way the tournament has panned out and the long break between the fifth and the sixth games, India are in a position to play their next couple of games without Pandya, who too has got an extended time to recuperate.
Even if he misses the games against England (October 29) and Sri Lanka (November 2), as he is expected to, Hardik will have gotten 17 days to recover. And if India confirm their spot in the last four by the end of these two matches, they might give him an extended break till India’s last game against the Netherlands in Bengaluru scheduled for November 12. That’s adequate recovery period, and game-time against the Netherlands should set him up nicely for the knockouts.
(Published 27 October 2023, 20:12 IST)