India are ticking a lot of boxes in white-ball cricket at the moment. They are spoilt for choice when it comes to the opening pair, with Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul. Virat Kohli at No. 3 is arguably the best batsman in the world. The bowling, with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Yuzvendra Chahal, gives them plenty of game-changing options to exercise in different phases of a match.
The only place where India lag behind other teams is in finishing the innings with the bat. Not too long ago it was felt that Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja could bat Nos. 5 through 7, but Pant falling by the wayside has thrown a spanner in the works. That brings the spotlight onto Pandya as a batsman.
His ability to hit the long ball has never been in doubt. Ever since the time of his early appearances for the Mumbai Indians in the IPL, he was earmarked as India's next finisher, after MS Dhoni. While he has played about a dozen Tests, and scored valuable runs in the format, his batting style is more suited to the shorter formats. He has been exceptionally brutal against spin, and his ability to clear the rope consistently without stepping out of the crease has made him a player to watch.
The difference between someone who can hit sixes against spin and someone who is dangerous against spin is that: the ability to hit sixes without stepping out. All spinners have tuned their game to counter the assault in white-ball cricket and so have started bowling a lot flatter and faster. These days, if you rely heavily on stepping out to go aerial (like Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root and Steven Smith do), you won't much be thought of as a finisher. That's where Pandya was different and still is.
When you play a lot of competitive cricket, teams will find ways to negate the threat you pose. The first chink in Pandya's armour was against short fast bowling. Those are always tough balls to negotiate, and even tougher to score off, especially for batsman from the subcontinent, who don't grow up on a heavy short-ball diet, and so aren't natural players of the pull and hook.
There was one season in the IPL where Pandya seemed to have sorted out that issue too. He started going really deep inside the crease, as if to tell the bowler that he was anticipating the short ball and was ready for it. The problem with going deep inside the crease even before the ball is bowled is that you leave no further room to move, and that leads to the back leg collapsing quite often. That didn't happen with Pandya, though, for his weight was always on the front leg, and that allowed him stay tall. Later that season, he revealed that he had acknowledged that shortcoming in his game and was aware of bowlers' plans and had left no stone unturned to develop his game against bouncers. Incidentally, that tactic of going deep inside the crease also helped him respond better to attempted yorkers.
"Pandya is no longer playing the bowler but the situation, and that is something we associate with quality batsmen."
Pandya was still an allrounder - someone who would bat in the dying overs of a game and bowl a few overs. And that role had become his identity. While there's nothing wrong in assuming that role and playing it perfectly, when injury prevented him from bowling, the dynamic changed completely. There were even question marks over his place in the side purely as a batsman - though that was just what he was for the Mumbai Indians in a trophy-winning campaign. Still, the balance of Mumbai was such that they could afford Pandya as a pure batsman, but could India afford that luxury? Was he ready to upgrade himself into a pure batsman at the highest level?
He has answered both these questions in the affirmative. His batting software has been updated to merit him a place as a pure batsman, who is capable of batting in the top five in both ODIs and T20s. In Australia, the biggest difference in his batting has been his confidence in his ability, which in turn allowed him to stay calm under pressure. Instead of manufacturing shots, Pandya chose, successfully, to wait for balls to land in his zone.
He is no longer a uni-dimensional batsman who only goes after spinners, and that has changed his approach radically. It is reflective of his growth as a reliable batsman who can adapt to different situations and mould his game accordingly. He is no longer playing the bowler but the situation, and that is something we associate with quality batsmen.
Pandya isn't a 360-degrees player but he does have shots for most balls, and against batsmen like that, bowlers tend to err more often than they do against more limited players. Pandya's stable base has been his strength all along, and while he has added shots through the off side, both off the front foot and back (his sixes over point to wide bouncers, slow or fast, are outrageous), he hasn't compromised that innate quality of keeping a good body shape.
He is no longer only a finisher, and it's only fair India start investing more faith in his abilities as a batsman. The day he starts bowling again, he will become India's most valuable player in white-ball cricket.