MUMBAI (Reuters) - The comparisons with Kapil Dev may be premature only three matches into his test career but all-rounder Hardik Pandya is already shaping up as a key man in India’s mission to conquer the world.
Since the retirement of former captain Dev in 1994, India have been engaged in a perpetual search for an all-rounder who can bowl medium pace and score vital runs down the batting order.
While the country has produced a plethora of spin-bowling all-rounders who suit their needs in Asian conditions, tours of Australia, England and South Africa have exposed the need for a batsman who can turn his arm to fast bowling.
The likes of Irfan Pathan, who played 29 tests from 2003 to 2008, and more recently Stuart Binny have auditioned for the role but neither was able to convincingly make it their own.
At 23, Pandya is already a regular member of India’s limited-overs sides and eased into the longest format of the game during India’s recent 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka.
There were understandable reservations about his red ball credentials given he had just played 17 first-class matches before his test debut, with one five-wicket haul and no centuries.
After his first test series, though, Pandya was already being compared to some of cricket’s best all-rounders.
While India’s head selector MSK Prasad believes Pandya has the talent to match even Dev’s considerable exploits, captain Virat Kohli preferred a comparison with the best fast-bowling all-rounder in the modern game.
“When you play away from home, an (all-rounder) gives you a lot of balance, and I think Hardik can be that guy going ahead, specially playing so much cricket away from home,” Kohli said in Sri Lanka.
“If he grows in confidence - you see someone like Ben Stokes, what he does for England. Brings in great balance as an all-rounder. I see no reason why Hardik Pandya can’t become that for India.”
With India preferring to play five batsmen in recent years, Pandya fulfilling his potential could be crucial to their continued success.
While the test team have been number one in the world rankings for much of the last year on the back of 14 wins in 18 matches, all but two of those have been played on the sub-continent.
Next year presents an altogether different challenge with four tests in January and February on the hard pitches of South Africa, where India have never won a series, followed by a five-match series on England’s greensward.
India have had no lack of talented teams in the past but they have been notoriously bad tourists and Kohli is well aware that current crop must win away from home to be remembered as a great rather than a good test side.
The early signs for Pandya were highly promising, even if his first three tests were played against a shambles of a Sri Lanka side.
Batting at number eight in his first test innings in Galle, Pandya scored 50 off 49 deliveries with five fours and three sixes.
One wicket from his medium pace bowling followed in Sri Lanka’s first innings, which he backed up with a particularly hostile spell of short deliveries in the second.
In his final innings of the series at Kandy, he struck his maiden test hundred, going from one to 108 in a single session.
The brutality of that 96-ball knock drew a comparison from India batting great Sunil Gavaskar with an Australian player whose suitability for test cricket was also questioned early in his career.
“It’s still early days but Pandya has proven that he has it in himself to succeed in test cricket,” Gavaskar told the NDTV channel.
“He is a bit like David Warner. I believe that Hardik will follow Warner’s footsteps and become a successful player in all three formats of the game.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Nick Mulvenney and Amlan Chakraborty