Hardik Pandya (left) and Paan Negi during his CSK days.
Hardik Pandya (left) and Pawan Negi during his CSK days.

You ought to be special when someone like Sachin Tendulkar comes to you and says, “The way you are playing, in one and a half years you are going to play for India.” And you got to be even more special when you take those words seriously and wear the national colours in half the time, the Master had estimated. That has been the story of Hardik Pandya, a street-smart Baroda lad who became a promising young player for Mumbai Indians (MI) and in no time crashed open the national selection doors. The level is reached but surviving here is a challenge that has tested the best. FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: India vs Sri Lanka, 2nd T20I at Ranchi

The scorecard on Tuesday read 51 for 5 in the 10th over. The young, inexperienced Sri Lankan side had created inroads in the much-famed Indian batting line-up. Out walked 22-year-old Pandya. It was his fourth international match, but he was batting for the first time. A few days back he revealed that he considered himself as a batting all-rounder. The stage was set for him to be the hero and guide India to a competitive total. All he lasted was six balls before falling leg-before to Dasun Shanaka for 2. India managed only 101 and lost by 5 wickets. Pandya later bowled 3 overs for 18.

The moment he got out he found himself amongst Twitter trends. Fans took to Twitter to poke fun at the his batting ability. Less than a month back, it was the same Pandya who had plundered 34 runs in an over in a Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy game. He had trended on Twitter then too. We live in a world with that short memory span, and social media has only contributed to it. It was unfair to single him out for the batting debacle in his first ever outing with the willow in international cricket but in fan extremism is something an Indian cricketer will have to live with.

Pandya is a pace-bowling all-rounder, a rare breed in Indian cricket. In recent times, experiments with Stuart Binny and Rishi Dhawan have not been very successful. Pandya bowls at a good pace, in the range of 135 to 140 kph and bats at middle-order; he is renowned for his big hitting. It has been more than 20 years since Kapil Dev retired, and India continue to struggle in this department. Manoj Prabhakar stayed for some time; Sourav Ganguly filled in at times with his gentle medium-pace; and then there was Irfan Pathan, who did not live up to his promise, thanks to injuries combined with bad luck. That is another story, but Pandya belongs to this rare breed. He can be an Indian captain’s delight.

So far he has picked up 3 wickets from his 4 T20Is at 32. His economy rate has been 9.6. It is not surprising, as batsmen usually target the fifth bowler in limited-overs cricket. With a little more luck the figures could have been different. Virat Kohli had dropped Shane Watson off him in the third T20I at Sydney, and the latter went on to score a hundred then.

While Pandya has not bowled poorly, he has not been impressive either. He has bowled way too many wides for a captain’s liking and has come across as an overexcited individual. He has shown exemplary fielding skills, but the rush of adrenaline has often found him make basic mistakes. One is bound to make mistakes and learn from the same, and the good part is that MS Dhoni believes in the youngster. It will not be surprising if he is being persisted with in the second game at Ranchi.

It is time Pandya starts repaying his captain’s faith. This match is all about opportunities, and there have been names in Indian cricket who have dedicated themselves meticulously and toiled productively for years but that big chance never came. Even if it came to a few, they were written off post initial failures. The more Pandya plays at this level, the better he will get but the longer he takes to adjust more and more questions will be asked and added to it is the competition for places. Ahead of important tournaments lined up, Pandya needs to grab the opportunities.

Moment of fame: Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and MI have seen some great IPL contests. Pandya’s moment of fame came in one of these, in 2015. At CSK’s fortress Chepauk, Pandya walked out to bat with MI needing 34 from 17 balls. When Dhoni handed Pawan Negi the 19th over, the bowler had gone for only 10 in his previous 3, and MI needed 30 from 12 balls. Pandya struck three sixes off Negi. With Ambati Rayudu joining the act, they looted 25 from the over. Pandya’s 21 from 8 balls, 3 catches and figures of 1-0-4-0 won him his first Man of the Match award.

Negi, the man he targeted that day, has made it a habit of hogging headlines in recent times. If his selection in India’s ICC World T20 2016 side was not surprising enough, he fetched a whopping INR 8.5 crores by Delhi Daredevils (DD) in the IPL auction last week. He became the most expensive Indian player bought in the auction. Negi is another all-rounder, a slow left-arm orthodox spinner and a hard-hitting lower order left-hander, who is cooling his heels in the benches and knocking the doors of entry to first XI hard. ALSO READ: India spoilt for choice with the emergence of Hardik Pandya and Pawan Negi

A healthy rivalry for places has already begun. It is time Pandya fires, or the man who he tormented very recently may end up having the last laugh.

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer, strategist, entrepreneur,  philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully and rivu7)