Searching for a hero: is Hardik Pandya the real new Kapil Dev?

The nostalgic Eighties hunt for a seaming all-rounder is not only an English obsession, as Nakul Pande explains.

Top tier: the first Hardik Pandya was admired by millions

Tunbridge Wells, Saturday June 18,1983:
India collapse to 9-4, and then 17-5, against Duncan Fletcher’s completely unfancied Zimbabweans. India’s charismatic mustachioed captain takes the game into his own hands, and smites the bowling to all parts of Kent to the tune of 175* off 138 balls to take India to a competitive and ultimately winning total.

A week later at Lord’s, the same man takes a brilliant catch running towards the grandstand to dismiss the rampant Viv Richards, and help India to their first ever World Cup win. And thus a national obsession was born.

Lord’s, Monday July 30,1990:
India need 24 to avoid the follow-on, thanks to Graham Gooch’s summer-defining 333 and hundreds by Allan Lamb and Robin Smith. Back at the scene of his high-catch heroics, our hirsute Haryana hero smashes Eddie Hemmings for four sixes in a row and England must bat again.

Ahmedabad, Tuesday February 8,1994:
Sanjay Manjrekar at short-leg catches Sri Lankan No 3 Hashan Tillakaratne off the inside edge, and Sir Richard Hadlee is eclipsed as the world’s leading Test wicket taker by the sixth of seven children of a Punjabi timber merchant.

Take a bow, Kapil Dev.

The 80s-nostalgia-soaked search for the next great seaming all-rounder is not uniquely an English one. While many “new Bothams” have come and gone, with only Andrew Flintoff and latterly Ben Stokes making a serious impression, India have been searching for the next Kapil Dev since before Kapil Dev retired, with even less success.

Since the great man retired in March 1994, only 13 seamers have taken more than 50 Test wickets with a bowling average lower than their batting average. Not one of them has been Indian. Only Irfan Pathan has got close, and his beguiling talent did not survive Greg Chappell’s attempts to turn him from a hooping swing bowler (one capable of taking a hat-trick including Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf in the first over of a Test) into a “true all-rounder”.

But in Gujarat, a new star is rising …

If Kapil was the symbol of India’s first tentative steps towards superpower status, all tache and medallions but with a cheeky grin, then Hardik Pandya could easily be the poster boy for the heady mix of swagger and struggle that is modern India. He looks almost as much at ease modelling various voguish fashions as he does playing cricket, and he rivals only Paul Pogba in his love of a fancy hairdo.

But as with most Indian cricketers, none of this came easy. His father shut down the family car business and moved the family 100 miles from home, all to give Hardik and his older brother Krunal, himself now on the fringes of the Indian limited overs teams, the opportunities for better cricket coaching at an academy run by former India keeper Kiran More. It was meant for kids no younger than twelve.

Hardik was five. Precocious doesn’t cover it.

The strain put upon the family eventually resulted in their father having three heart attacks in six months when Hardik was 19. Three years later, Hardik’s pace and Krunal’s spin were instrumental in Baroda winning the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, India’s domestic state T20 tournament and de-facto IPL audition. Not bad for two lads who until recently had been subsisting on a daily bowl of Maggi noodles apiece.

Since then, the legend of Hardik has grown with every passing year. He was an IPL champion with Mumbai Indians in 2015, his first year in the tournament, twice man of the match along the way. Sachin Tendulkar himself told him he’d be playing for India within 18 months – it took only 8.

His World T20 in 2016 was by turns brilliant – defending two off the last three balls against Bangladesh – and frustrating – dismissing Lendl Simmons off a no-ball in the semi-final, contributing to the West Indies knocking the hosts out and setting the stage for Carlos “Remember The Name!” Brathwaite.

Later that year, he became only the fourth Indian to be player of the match on ODI debut. He served notice of his effortless brutality on the global stage at the 2017 Champions Trophy, hitting three consecutive sixes off Imad Wasim in the group game demolition of Pakistan, and awakening the latent pessimism of that nation’s fans even in their moment of triumph in the final. His 76 off 43 threatened to turn a rout into a nailbiter before he was run-out in what may yet prove to be the last act of Ravindra Jadeja’s limited-overs international career.

Hardik may not have Irfan’s banana swing, but he has pace, a good cutter, a slippery bouncer, and a bit of a golden arm. If he is sometimes raw, it should be noted that he was a legspinner till the age of 19. And as a batsman and a fielder, he is streets ahead of any of the post-Kapil pretenders.

While his single-session hundred in Pallekele in his third Test came against a weak and demoralised Sri Lanka, his blazing 93 off 95 was on a spicy Cape Town wicket against an attack of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada. Hey now, the boy can play.

And in the field he can be nothing short of inspirational. He has a bullet throwing arm from anywhere in the field, and it was his sharp catch at short midwicket to dismiss Hashim Amla that sparked South Africa’s collapse as India saved face by winning the third Test of the recent series, on a Joburg track that would have had many a touring side waving the white flag.

Now, as India prepare to try and win a series in England for the first time in 11 years, driven by captain Virat Kohli’s desire for world rather than just subcontinental domination, history has its eyes on Hardik. It remains to be seen whether he will rise up, or throw away his shot.

NB – this article has been updated to correctly note Hardik’s age upon entering the academy, and the number of heart attacks suffered by his father.