Hailed as a game-changing finisher in shorter formats across the cricket world, Hardik Pandya still hasn’t sealed his place in the playing XI for home Tests. Since his back surgery in 2019, he has featured primarily as a batsman in limited overs, bowling only four overs in the second ODI against Australia in Sydney, even though he has emphasised that his return to the bowling crease will be a gradual process. “We knew Hardik will not be able to bowl, but we saw in the IPL the headspace that he has been in. But Test cricket is a different challenge and we need him to bowl regularly,” captain Virat Kohli had said at the end of the limited-overs leg of the Australian tour last year.
That apart, there are strong cricketing reasons that suggest why the 27-year-old might not get a game in the upcoming four-match Test series against England.
Five-bowler plan: It’s been a defining feature of Virat Kohli’s captaincy, especially on tours abroad. Packing the playing XI with five genuine bowlers increases the chance to pick 20 wickets. This was the reason for their success in Australia, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise that they would continue with this plan in the home series against England as well. Despite Hardik not being fit to bowl, India still have a surfeit of bowling options —- in pace and spin —- to choose from. Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin pick themselves, and depending on the nature of the track in Chennai, they can pick the other two bowlers from an impressive ensemble cast that includes: Mohammed Siraj, Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel, Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar.
Too many all-rounders: There was a time when India didn’t have too many Test all-rounders. Now even when Ravindra Jadeja is injured, Kohli has many options. In case Pandya is fit to bowl, it lends balance to the playing XI. But even without him, this squad boasts of an array of all-rounders who have shown their temperament and skill in the three Tests in Australia. Ashwin leads the list. The veteran may have endured a wretched spell with the bat over the last 18 months, but that splendid rearguard with Hanuma Vihari on Day 5 in Sydney only reaffirmed his batting nous. Sundar, Thakur and Axar may not be as experienced as Ashwin, but they are more than capable to bat at No.8 in Test cricket.
Settled batting line-up: There’s hardly any debate over Team India’s top five batsmen for this series. Let’s start with the openers. Rohit Sharma, much like Bumrah, Ishant and Ashwin, is an obvious pick. Tall scores may have eluded the 33-year-old in Australia, but he was batting like a dream. Partnering him would be the 21-year-old Shubman Gill. The manner in which he stood up as an opener to the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon has won him fans from several quarters. Cheteshwar Pujara follows the openers, with skipper Kohli and his deputy Ajinkya Rahane taking up the other three spots. Rishabh Pant, following his match-winning knock at the Gabba, saunters into this position. With the top six among the runs, it is unlikely that India will be keen on an additional batsman in Pandya.
Rest and rotation: This is a year when the T20 format is on the top of most minds on the cricket circuit, be it players, coaches, IPL teams or even boards. Following the IPL in April is the World T20 in India. Since Pandya happens to be a T20 MVP, the team management will be careful in using him in Tests. Besides with India most likely to qualify for the World Test Championship final against New Zealand at Lord’s, Pandya as a third pacer and No.7 batsman will be priceless. So keeping Pandya in cotton-wool against England at home wouldn’t be a bad idea.