“We can start by recognising the value he adds to the side”
Here is an extract from Nathan Leamon’s extraordinary novel The Test.
“High, high in the Chinese hills, there was once a monastery where a distinguished Taoist guru lived … In the evenings the monks would gather in the Great Hall to listen to their leader’s teachings and … meditate. But … a stray cat … would follow the monks into the hall. It would mewl, scratch, and generally be annoying … every night, until the great teacher became so irritated by it that he told his followers to put a collar on the cat and tether it on the far side of the monastery each evening. This worked well and, for a while, teacher, cat and monks all went through their nightly routine. One day, the learned teacher died. But the monks continued to tie up the cat each evening. More years passed. And eventually, the cat died. So the monks went down to the nearest village, found a replacement cat, and tied it up each evening instead. Two centuries later, religious scholars write learned essays on the importance of tying up a cat prior to evening meditation. This is how much of cricket works.”
This is one of those pieces written on cricket that crystallise this writer’s emotions so perfectly that he wishes that he had written the lines himself.
“Start the innings by batting slowly, giving the first hour to the bowlers …” that was inherited from the days of Timeless Tests. It is still intoned by cricketers, the ones who had played in a generation where draws were extremely frequent and honourable outcome.
“Flight the ball more,” harangue finger spinners of the days of yore, who bowled when bats were less formidable and limited-overs cricket was limited. The willows were yet to have turned every batsman into fearsome hitters. Really, in the modern day when boundaries are shorter than ever and even mishits land in the second tier, the mantra ‘flight them as we used to’ is archaic.
Old adages like these … which no longer make sense … are so often taken as gospel. One of the most fascinating aspects of cricket is its constant evolution.
Getting on the off-side of the ball to hook is fast becoming a lost art, with more and more batsmen preferring to trust their helmets and other protective equipment and remain in the line of the ball to essay the pull.
‘One for the throw’ became obsolete in the early 1980s.
The longstop went out of the reckoning long, long ago.
One can cling on to one’s confirmation bias that someone who looks too shaky to bat No 6 and too innocuous to be a change seam bowler, is bits and pieces cricketer thrown up by the shorter formats. There were men like that in the county circuits. But it was really in the 1980s that the term ‘bits and pieces cricketer’ became prevalent. Simon O’Donnell, Tony Dodemaide … slowly giving way to Gavin Larsen, Ronnie Irani, Mark Ealham and others.
These men did not fire in Test cricket. And thus the cat was tethered to the tree… a branded bits and pieces cricketer do not fit in the longest format.
Cut to the modern day.
Hardik Pandya has to deal with an enormous amount of criticism because he is bred through the T20 format, and is someone who can bowl a bit and bat a bit. He is being played as an all-rounder and is batting at No 6. Perhaps that is indeed a slot too high for him. And he was the new cat that had to be tethered to the ancient tree. A bits and pieces cricketer who does not fit in the Test side.
It was curious. A legendary cricketer of yore was extremely scathing in his criticism. And quite a few others.
In their haste to brand him and cater to their confirmation bias, they ignored several facts.
Pandya had outscored the top three in the Indian batting order at both Edgbaston and Lord’s.
Pandya had taken three wickets at Lord’s, the most successful of the Indian bowlers in terms of bowling analysis.
He had played an exhilarating innings of 93 in South Africa, when the side was in the doldrums.
Pandya had perhaps not looked the best of batsmen or the best of bowlers, but he had applied himself to the best of his abilities.
I doubt whether the famous and the not-so-famous critics had any of these facts or statistics at their fingertips as they continued to raise their voices against him. Anyway, statistics always take the backseat to gut-feel.
Pandya is indeed someone who has come through the ranks of T20 cricket. His First-Class record is indeed not the best in both the departments. But there are some differences between the ‘bits and pieces cricketers’ of the 1980s and 1990s.
He knows his limitations, but that is not quite the disadvantage that the Ealhams and Dodemaids had to deal with in the 1980s and 1990s. He fully backs himself to do what he is good at. This confidence, whether purists like it or not, is something the multi-format modern day game instils into cricketers. Perhaps it comes from sharing dressing rooms and rubbing shoulders with legends in private T20 leagues? I am not entirely sure.
Pandya can do a decent enough job in keeping things tight. He can move it a bit. And with the bat, he is fully capable of some very audacious strikes.
In between, he is fully willing to apply himself. There is grit in his character, which his blonde-dyed stearks, tatoos and earrings may perhaps make it difficult for us to recognise.
He is not really geared to face top quality swing bowling. But he applies himself really rally hard. It was this application that allowed him to take the first Test match to the final stages even after the dismissal of Virat Kohli. It was this application on show as he concentrated long and hard for his innings on the first day at Trent Bridge. It is this application which has seen him become the third after Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane to tote up 100 runs in the series.
He is not really the greatest bowler in these conditions. But he can deliver the best within his limitations, and that can reap enormous dividends as he showed today. Just by keeping it simple and moving it a bit.
At the moment when India started the second innings, Pandya was the third highest scorer in the team in terms of runs and the second highest in terms of wickets captured in the series. In the wicket list, he currently tops the charts in terms of average. That, I think, by any standard, is a handy all-rounder to have in the side.
Pandya is not a new Kapil Dev. But repeating that ad infinitum does not make him a lesser player than he actually is. And he has it in him to be an asset in the side, and the tenacity to keep improving all the time.
We can start by recognising the value he adds to the side.