WATCH - Pandya makes 93 in maiden innings in South Africa
Hardik Pandya is down - hit in the unprotected midriff by a skiddy 145kph Kagiso Rabada short ball. At this moment, you can't tell what offending-to-purists colour the hair under his helmet is. The crowd here doesn't care. The South Africa team for sure doesn't care; they long ago stopped trying to nick him out. They are trying to now bounce him out. They know they are in the middle of a serious Test innings. Even before anybody can sympathise with him, though, he gets up, somewhere in between Undertaker's sit-up and Shawn Michaels' kip-up.
Pandya is walking across the stumps, he is walking away from them, he is cutting over extra cover, he is ramping, he is dancing. This is Pandya's dance. A target of ridicule, partly because of premature comparisons with Kapil Dev started by his chief of selectors, partly because he doesn't look the part, Pandya comes in at No. 7 with India yet to reach the follow-on avoiding mark of 87. And he walks down to Vernon Philander the first ball he faces in South Africa.
Soon Pandya is given out, and he reviews it with such certain swagger that should serve as an advice to Dale Steyn to not burst a vein celebrating a catch off his leg. Then he sees R Ashwin is gone; India still need six to avoid the ignominy and have four wickets in hand.
Pandya is driving. Anything in his reach, he is driving. Doesn't matter if it is Steyn or Philander or Morne Morkel or Rabada. If you bowl full, Pandya drives. One such drive goes for four. Saves follow-on. On Dev's birthday. What a laugh. Not for Pandya; he is in the middle of a serious Test innings.
South Africa give him 22 full balls out of 95. They correct their length, and Pandya shows he has a back-foot game. It's not the most aesthetic or fool-proof back-foot game, but he is getting on. He cuts, and he pulls, and he shows them the ramp, never mind if he misses it at first. Pandya is finding a way.
Not long ago, Pandya had never played Test cricket. He hadn't scored a century in any official cricket. He couldn't remember when he last scored a century ever, even in street or book cricket. He came into Test cricket, took on nine fielders on the fence, and smacked a hundred in Sri Lanka. Then he was rested so that he was fresh and fit for this tour, but it only brought him more ridicule.
Now Pandya is ridiculing. He is ridiculing the lines Morkel has started bowling. "You bowl it that wide, I will hit you there," he says. Pandya is talking. When Bhuvneshwar Kumar is on strike, facing Keshav Maharaj, like Pandya of Gujarati descent, Pandya shouts to his partner: "Three slow balls in, now watch out for the quicker skidder." He says that in Hindi. Surely, Maharaj understands it?
Before facing the last ball of a Maharaj over, he asks Bhuvneshwar: "Morkel is bowling into the body, do you want me to take a single?"
Pandya is talking. He is telling Bhuvneshwar after a swing-and-a-miss, "Didn't touch it? Forget about it." He is telling Bhuvneshwar that Rabada and Morkel can't bowl more than three more overs each in a particular testing spell. India were 81 for 6, but Pandya is having a party in the middle.
Pandya is not talking to his team-mates but he is telling them things through his runs. The impact of his innings and two wickets in this Test will be seen soon, but there is a larger impact of this effort. He is telling his team-mates this four-man pace attack for a while reminiscent of the great West Indian attack - it burst through the top, choked the middle, and seemed to provide India no respite - can be handled. That once the ball gets soft and the pitch flat, there is no place to bat like South Africa: just time the ball and watch it hurtle to the boundary. That if you keep them in the field long enough, they will face the pressure of the over rate and introduce spin. That they will have to start thinking of the new ball. Pandya's effort tells his team-mates the cost of the three errors they made under pressure in the awkward 50 minutes on the first evening.
Pandya is talking a lot. It is all audible in the stump mic. And it is amusing. Just like it used to be with a retired icon who batted similarly. Like MS Dhoni, the batsman, Pandya is absolutely clear in his head, doesn't mind looking ungainly, wears blows with pride, and absolutely disrespects spinners. He somehow finds a way, which was what Dhoni did. On the tour of 2010-11, in a losing cause, the message that India won't roll over and die was sent partly by Dhoni, who fell 10 short of a hundred in a similarly ingenious innings.
Forget about ridicule and comparisons with Kapil, getting close to making up for Dhoni the batsman in Tests should be a target for Pandya to work with. And he can bowl too.