Hardik Pandya decimated England’s batting line-up at Trent Bridge with a supreme display of swing bowling, and Ben Jones reflects on how allowing Hardik tactical freedom might well be the making of him.
“I am Hardik Pandya.”
It is at the edges of performance that you find a sports-person’s identity. For most players, we remember them at the extremes of their ability, not at their average. We remember their firsts, their lasts; their mosts, their leasts. They stick in the mind.
One suspects that Hardik Pandya’s future biographer will be watching this afternoon’s action back a fair few times, when researching the life story of The Next Kapil Dev. On an overcast afternoon in a finely poised third Test, Pandya truly announced himself on the international scene as a bowler of tremendous talent, taking his first Test five-wicket haul as England slumped to 161 all out. This was a performance which many doubted Pandya had in him; he silenced those critics, emphatically.
Or rather, a version of Hardik Pandya silenced them. The man who ripped through England’s line-up on Day Two was in many ways an alter-ego, a new persona adopted by Hardik for the situation. His bowling strategy, the pattern of play he wished to impose on the England batsmen, was significantly different to anything he’d done before in a Test, not just in quality but in its nature, in its tactical foundations. Today, Pandya became an attacking, pitch-it up swing bowler.
His average length today was 6.1 metres from the stumps, which is astonishingly full. It’s a metre fuller than the length he bowled in the previous Tests. Given a little cloud cover, and a relatively timid England batting line-up, The 57% full deliveries he bowled today is the most he’s ever bowled in a Test match.
It’s a gamble to pitch the ball up that significantly, but it worked. He found more swing (1.824°) than he has ever done in a Test innings, a new level of nuance being added to his armoury. Kohli can slap Pandya on the back tonight, but he should reserve plenty of praise for Ishant, who showed the young all-rounder the way. At one early stage, Ishant was bowling 60% of his deliveries in the full zone, whilst no other Indian was bowling over 20%. Eventually, Hardik would follow him down this path, but it was Ishant that did the early hard work.
When Hardik did follow him, it seemed to take him to another level physically. It was the fastest he has ever bowled in a Test match; at 137.35kph, he was steaming in, with vast. You could argue that this was simply the adrenaline doing its thing, that a bowler taking wickets will always find that bit of nip. Or you could argue that today was a young, inexperienced bowler discovering his natural length.
Ultimately, Hardik is a player of vast potential. In terms of ability, he has a Sistine-level ceiling. Yet in the time since he made his Test debut, he’s been frustrating. Not bad, not inconsistent, but just regularly failing to make an impression on matches. Perhaps this is because of the insistence on characterising Hardik as one kind of player, and not giving him the freedom to blossom into whatever kind of cricket he wishes to become?
Over and over, Hardik has been cast as a bang it in bowler, an option for the captain, something different for Kohli to try when the ball’s gone soft. Yet he only averages 42.66 with the short ball in Test cricket. To cast him in that role, right now, is a waste of his abilities.
It is too easy to be lead into cul-de-sacs by character, by personality. We see Hardik in a press conference, on Instagram, the glamorous face of Indian cricket in 2018, and we infer a certain style of play. We infer that here’s the all-action all-rounder, mixing it up, fast and excitable and ready to change the game. It appears, at times, as if the Indian set-up buy into this model of Hardik.
To think about tactical structure and strategic patterns as being linked to character, to personality, is one big metaphor that is necessary to enjoy sport, but not to succeed in it. Accuracy doesn’t equal timidity, pace doesn’t equal anger; we impose this on players, on people in general. When we’re talking about a player’s personality, we shouldn’t be lead into thinking that gives us insight into their game. Today, Hardik bowled with subtle skill. We should allow him to become that player should he wish to.
He is Hardik Pandya.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.