Hardik Pandya will have to resume bowling before India consider him as a Test option again. This much was made clear when Virat Kohli was asked if the management would be tempted to retain the allrounder for the Test series, after a string of important performances in the limited-overs leg of the tour, where he played as a specialist batsman and ended up Man of the Series in the T20s.
Apart from bowling an impromptu spell during the second ODI against Australia, Pandya has gone all season – including the IPL – playing only as a batsman, as he continues to build up to full fitness following a back surgery last year. The messaging around his non-bowling, from voices like Mumbai Indians’ Mahela Jayawardene and Zaheer Khan, had been one of caution – of not rushing him back into a bowling workload, and that seems to be the picture in the national team as well.
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“He’s been outstanding,” Kohli said in a press conference after the T20I series concluded. “He couldn’t bowl and we knew he’s not going to bowl. But what we saw of him in the IPL, and the headspace that he’s in, you know – you can just see in his game – that he’s wanting to make the team win. But Test cricket is a very different challenge altogether and we need him to bowl. We’ve spoken to him about it.
“We need him to bowl. That’s when he becomes that one guy who brings a lot of balance for us. If you’ve seen our cricket overseas as well, in South Africa and England, we were able to compete for longer periods through Test matches because of the fact that he brought a lot of balance in terms of his bowling. We’ve communicated that to him.”
After the second T20I, Pandya had been asked on air if he would like to stay back for the Tests, and showed brief interest in the idea. “It’s a different ball game I think I need to be…I mean, I don’t mind. But at the end of the day it is the call for the management and everyone (to make),” he had said. By the end of the third T20I on Tuesday, though, he said he was keen on spending time with his family and not thinking of a Test comeback at the moment.
Pandya has played 11 Tests for India since debuting in 2017, the last one in England in 2018. Recurring lower back niggles have since kept him away. He averages 31.29 with the bat, with five fifty-plus scores, and 31.05 with the ball with one five-for. The management’s requirement for him to be firing as a complete allrounder to be considered for Tests is something he is clear about.
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“He’s definitely in a zone where he wants to get stronger, figure out and iron out all these niggles, and he wants to be able to provide for India with all three disciplines – and that’s always been his X-factor and it will continue to be,” Kohli said. “In white-ball cricket, we’ve found someone who can finish games and consistently. But he himself wants to get back into the bowling space and be available as a pure allrounder in Tests, which becomes way more important. Over five days, you need a little extra from a player in that role. So he understands that and is working really hard to come back.”
Shami, Bumrah were being kept fresh for first Test
India were slated to play two multi-day tour games, one of which concluded on Tuesday without the involvement of senior fast bowlers Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, who were with the T20I team. Bumrah, however, didn’t participate in any of the three T20s and Shami only played in the first one at Canberra. Kohli said this was an attempt to beware the packed schedule and what it could do to fitness levels.
“It’s very important to understand that you need guys fresh for the first Test,” Kohli said. “You need to take some calls along with playing so many games. The fact that we’ve played six games in absolutely no time is something that we all need to address and be wary of.
“You don’t want guys starting the Test match feeling sore or feeling like their legs have had too many miles in them. So we keep constantly communicating with the bowlers, asking them how their bodies are feeling, and they’ve been pretty professional and pretty good in communicating back what they need. We need to show absolute trust and faith in their processes and make sure they’re in the right headspace heading into the first Test.”
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In all, India have played six limited-overs matches since the tour began on November 27, and the constraints in the schedule meant one of their practice games overlapped with the last two T20 matches. The time available before the Test series begins is a useful pause, Kohli said, but the overall schedule meant workload management was inevitable for those involved in all formats.
“I think before we go into the first Test, the feeling that we’ll want to have is that our games are at an acceptable level,” Kohli said. “But more important than that is that you’re physically fresh. We can’t afford the slightest of niggles or muscle strains. That is the biggest priority for us – to keep our main players physically fit. To start the Test series well, we will need our fittest eleven players on the field.”
India’s final tour game starts on Friday, before the first Test in Adelaide from December 17. It will be the only Test Kohli plays before departing on paternity leave. Kohli said he was personally in a good headspace heading into the longer format, after what he called a scratchy start to the tour.
“Tonight I felt particularly good. I think I’m in the right headspace now. I think it was a bit scratchy in the first ODI to begin with, but then I addressed a few things and worked on a few aspects of my game that I wanted to. Purely to get into the best headspace that I possibly can, not thinking too much technique. Because when I get into a good headspace is when I feel like I can play and switch between all formats, and adjust according to the conditions as well,” he said.
Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo