Over the years, attempts have been made to shoehorn the likes of Irfan Pathan, Sanjay Bangar and even Ajit Agarkar and Stuart Binny into the role but none of them have been able to give India the balance Kapil Dev provided.
Hence, ever since Hardik Pandya burst onto the international-stage after some exhilarating displays with both bat and ball in the IPL for Mumbai Indians, the comparisons with Dev have been rift and unending.
While his initial exploits came in limited-overs cricket, the 24-year-old’s ability to clear the boundary ropes with ease, athleticism on the field and the ability to bowl regularly above 140kmph has seen him being fast-tracked into the Test team as well.
In the two years or so since he made his India debut, the all-rounder has managed to divide opinions sharply and has earned his fair share of critics.
Of late, those criticisms have been growing with the most scathing of them coming from West Indies great Michael Holding.
“I heard a mention, when I was working in South Africa: ‘he is the next Kapil Dev’. I ain’t going to tell anybody he’s not going to be the next Kapil Dev, but he is nowhere near there yet,” Holding told ESPNCricinfo.
While his abilities with the bat have never really been in question, it is Pandya’s bowling which has let him down at times. He came into the third Test between England and India at Trent Bridge with a bowling average of nearly 40 which is nothing to shout home about.
In the first Test at Edgbaston, Pandya was not even trusted to bowl a single over in England’s second innings. At Trent Bridge, he was only thrown the ball due to off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin having to leave the field with hip troubles.
What followed was one of the best spells of bowling by an India pacer in England. Within 29 balls, Pandya had picked up his maiden Test five-wicket haul as the hosts went on to lose 10 wickets in a session.
It wasn’t a lack of application from the batsmen that had gifted Pandya his five wickets, which included the likes of Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes. It was accurate swing bowling at a decent clip that wrecked the English batting line-up.
In that one innings, Pandya looked head and shoulders above India’s frontline pacers; Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma. What worked for him was the fact that he was able to get the ball to move sharply both ways at will.
At the end of day two at Trent Bridge, Pandya said: “I never wanted to be Kapil Dev. Let me be Hardik Pandya, I’m good at being Hardik Pandya. I’ve come so far — playing 40 ODIs and 10 Tests — being Hardik and not Kapil Dev.”
Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, the all-rounder does make a very valid point.
For long, India’s obsession with finding the next Dev has seen players like Pathan wilt under the pressure before their careers took a nosedive.
Players in the all-rounder’s role have been put under the microscope constantly and have subsequently been found wanting more often than not.
The Trent Bridge Test is only the 10th of Pandya’s young career so far and nine of them have come away from home. Only Afghanistan’s maiden Test in June this year came at home, while the others have come in Sri Lanka, South Africa and now England.
What Pandya has shown over the course of these 10 Tests is an ability to make a big impact on certain occasions. With the bat, his sole Test ton in Pallekele and his 95-ball 93 in Cape Town come to mind.
With the ball, he has been largely inconsistent but his performances at Lord’s and now Trent Bridge reflect a growing maturity and understanding of his role.
In 2018, Pandya is only behind Virat Kohli among Indian batsmen with the most Test runs (298). That statistic is more a damning indictment of the failure of India’s specialist batsmen, but it does show that Pandya has not been slacking in his task.
One only has to look at the world’s current premier seaming all-rounder in Ben Stokes to judge Pandya’s contribution to the side. The Englishman’s batting average after 44 Tests (33.97) is not too far off from Pandya’s (31.73).
In the bowling department, Stokes averages a decent 33.57. After Pandya’s first inning heroics at Trent Bridge, his bowling average has climbed down all the way to 28.06.
It is true that Stokes has performed over a longer period of time with some memorable performances like his 198-ball 258 against South Africa at Cape Town along the way, but Pandya does have plenty of time on his side to morph into a more consistent all-rounder.
Having grown up primarily on limited-overs cricket, Pandya has had to make the transition to red-ball cricket without any substantial first-class experience under his belt.
The all-rounder has only played 26 first-class matches in his career so far. By comparison, a 20-year-old Rishabh Pant who made his Test debut at Trent Bridge has already played 23.
Pandya has had to learn on the move in competitive Test matches and the signs are that he is getting better. What he has already proven is that he is a match-winner on his day who is capable of changing the complexion of the game in an instant.
He has his own strengths that he brings to the table and that is the reason Kohli and the team management have persisted with him despite the criticisms and inconsistencies.
As Pandya gains more experience, the consistency is bound to grow and India could yet have that all-rounder they so desperately desire.
For now, they should just let him be and wait for the finished product they envisage in the future.
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