Sunday , June 13 2021

In the absence of Hardik, who is injured, his brother Krunal makes his presence felt

By Chetan Narula

We do not talk much about cricket. Sometimes we made fun of each other – like he made fun of me when I went for 50-odd runs in Brisbane, "said Krunal Pandya, as a matter of fact when asked about his younger brother, Hardik.

It's a weird admission, considering how cricket runs deep in the family tree now. From domestic cricket to Indian Premier League, and now the international arena, the Pandya home has contributed two match-winners to the sport, both in the all-rounder mold.

There is another coincidence herein. In the short time they have been involved with the Indian team, both Hardik and Krunal have become almost indispensable for the limited-overs' side. Barring injury (or rest), try and recall when was the last time Hardik did not take the field. It's not a minor coincidence that when he is now out of consideration, Krunal got his chance and was not relegated to the bench even once during this three-match series.

Why does this question arise? Well, Krunal was spanked for 55/0 in four overs in the Brisbane T20I. There are not many first-timers who would survive such an onslaught when the situation gets dire, especially when you have a trigger-happy captain. Virat Kohli is known for chopping and changing his playing eleven for various known and unknown reasons.

He has caused a stir on umpteen occasions with his logic-defying selections. This time too he has put everyone in a quandary – Kohli played the same team in the three T20Is, neglecting conditions, logic and convention. And Krunal was a direct beneficiary of this decision.

"Regardless of what anyone says, when you are spanked for 50-plus in your first game on Australian soil, it comes as a shock. You began to doubt yourself, and it was the same with me – it took a lot of time to overcome that disappointment. In a way, Brisbane and Sydney are two extreme performances. And I badly wanted this to happen, so to tell myself that I belong at the international level. I am happy and relieved, "said Krunal on Sunday evening, after fashioning India's series' Levelling win with a roll of 4-36.

Self-doubt is a good thing, particularly in sport. You never know when conditions and opposition will get the better of you. In Krunal's case, it was more the situation than anything else. For the last couple years, he was at the forefront of Mumbai Indians' IPL challenge. In particular, when the franchise used one of their right-match cards at the auctions and regained its signature for an eye-watering Rs 8.8 crore. His base price? Rs 40 lakhs.

Indian players – especially those who can command and hold a spot firstteam – are always at a premium in the IPL auctions. But this was stretching it, even by the deep-pocket standards of Mumbai Indians. The underlying point is not about money – it's how Krunal was / is central to their plans of forming a consistent T20 side that challenges for the trophy every season. It was simply the price you pay for an allround talent in your side.

Despite those off-field riches and on-field glory in the IPL, the India call-up took time to materialize. Even when the selectors got experimental with spin options and sidelined Ravindra Jadeja, Krunal was made to wait. And for good reason – he does not cut it as a stand-alone spinner, and India did not need another spin all-rounder. Hardik, with his pace skill, served the purpose given conditions expected at the 2019 World Cup in England.

So, why is Krunal in the side now? For one, Hardik's absence warrants a balancing act and it could be seen in the manner Yuzvendra Chahal sat out the whole T20I series. Kohli has never been a believer in six bowling options and always prefer an allround element as the fifth bowler. You can see how the pieces were moved deliberately to give Krunal a decent run, albeit an experimental one.

By his own admission, Brisbane and Sydney were two extreme performances, and it remains to be seen where between the two Krunal's average-curve stabilises. Even if it is closer to the Sydney outing, it may not be enough to buy a plane ticket to the World Cup as a second all-rounder, especially a leftarm spinner when Jadeja is on his way back into reckoning.

But as long as Hardik is out injured, India needs a buffer in place. If one Pandya is unavailable, make do with the other Pandya. It's worth pondering if this will become a norm for Indian cricket going ahead.

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