T20 World Cup: Hardik Pandya unlikely to play as pure batsman; Thakur an option

Hardik Pandya is unlikely to play as a pure batsman in this T20 World Cup. The Indian Express understands that the team management has taken this call after the loss to Pakistan in the opening game.

Pandya, who started bowling at the nets on Wednesday, will be monitored during practice sessions in the lead-up to India’s next game against New Zealand on Sunday. If the team management is convinced about his bowling fitness, only then will he be included in the team.

At the same time, Shardul Thakur, too, will be watched closely at the nets, as he is tipped to be Pandya’s replacement if the latter fails to make the cut.

After a long gap, Pandya, eventually bowled at the nets during India’s training session yesterday. Bowling in high-intensity matches, however, is a different ball game and the team management needs to be convinced about his match readiness.

Yesterday’s net session was essentially about focusing on the allrounder’s strength and conditioning, with an eye to gradually develop his peak bowling fitness.

The 28-year-old has bowled just 19 overs in seven T20Is this year, and 23 overs in six One-Day Internationals. He didn’t bowl at all in this year’s Indian Premier League season. And yet, while picking the squad for the ICC event, national selector Chetan Sharma had backed him to bowl his overs at the T20 World Cup.

“Hardik is fit and will bowl the full quota of his overs,” Sharma had said at the squad announcement.

But as the tournament approached, uncertain about Pandya, the selection committee started to fret over the inclusion of an additional fast bowler and accordingly Thakur was drafted into the squad at the expense of Axar Patel, whose World Cup hopes crashed abruptly.

Bereft of a sixth bowling option, Virat Kohli put up a brave front ahead of India’s tournament opener, saying that No. 6 being a specialist’s place, the team had absolutely no problem to play Pandya solely as a batsman, gaining from his death-overs hitting skills. The India captain rubbished the suggestion that Pandya would be left out if he didn’t bowl.

“These things (uncertainty over Pandya’s selection) from a talking or discussion point of view, feel very interesting that if he doesn’t bowl, will he be left out. But we understand the value he brings to the team as a No. 6 batter and in world cricket, if you look around, there are specialists who do that job,” Kohli had said.

Following a 10-wicket hammering against Pakistan, where on a dew-soaked Dubai pitch, India badly missed a sixth bowler, the team management, it is learnt, is searching for a Plan B. And Thakur could fit into that plan.

Thakur is a very decent lower-order batsman, good enough to change the course of a match in Test cricket, as he did against Australia at the Gabba earlier this year and more recently against England at the Oval. Of course, Pandya boasts a strike-rate north of 145 in T20Is and he is a match-winner solely with his batting on his day. But his recent batting form has not been up to standard, as a tally of 127 runs in 12 matches at the IPL would attest.

At the moment though, after a rude awakening, the Indian think-tank seems to be more concerned about the team’s bowling imbalance and Thakur, who had 21 scalps from 16 games during Chennai Super Kings’ title-winning campaign this year, could provide a solution.

A persistent back problem, which first surfaced during an Asia Cup game against Pakistan in Dubai three years ago that forced Pandya to be stretchered off, has chequered the player’s career. For now however, the focus shifts on India’s back-up plan, with Thakur getting extra minutes with the bat during the training session, and also getting into the nets early, unlike a tail-ender. For India, Sunday’s game is a virtual quarterfinal.

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