From the magisterial member's pavilion - SCG's bridge between the quaint past and the bustling present - Hardik Pandya emerged, his kit-bag slung on his shoulders, his ears immune to the clatter of the fans beyond the fence, eyes drifting into the distant gloomy clouds. He plunged into the chair under the canopy, reluctantly unpacking the bag. A few minutes later, he quietly applied the sunscreen and began to bowl from a shorter run-up, sometimes missing it.
His demeanour was far from what has been accustomed to - Pandya in the nets, especially when he's bowling, is usually unmissable, pulling pranks, cracking jokes, cranking the ball as hard as he can, cracking the ball as long as he can.
On Friday, there was an artificial calm about him. He would be aware of the storm generated by the comments made by him and teammate KL Rahul during a talk show, which was first aired on Sunday. He and the fellow participant in the television show KL Rahul were suspended on Friday at a time when the team begins their build-up for the World Cup.
It's Pandya who the team would really miss. Though he has yet to blossom into a pedigreed all-rounder, he furnishes Kohli the utility few of his predecessor could imagine. Here's someone who can make the ball seam both ways, someone who can be lethal if there's a wee bit of assistance off the surface, who can ratchet up his pace when he wants to.
Here's someone who is unabashed to wielding the long handle the moment he arrives at the crease, irrespective of the situation, someone who can hang around when he wants to, someone who has the potential to morph into a finisher.
Here's someone who's a whippet on the field with a strong throwing arm. Here's someone who could be the magic cure to the long-afflicted panacea of Indian cricket-an all-rounder who gives balance and flexibility to the team.
With him around, Kohli can afford to take liberties with the playing eleven and batting order. He can send him as a pinch-hitter up the order for the sake of novelty or disrupt the opponents' plans. In heady run-chases, he has the assurance of a lower-order batsman who can accelerate, someone who can guide the lower-order in emergency. He can squeeze in the extra batsman or bowler depending on the pitch.
His void suddenly puts Kohli in a fix ahead of the series-opener at the SCG. Hardik's potential has surfaced intermittently thus far, but the very idea of having someone like him in the team automatically infuses confidence. His omission also leaves India with a depleted bowling firm.
For Jasprit Bumrah has been advised rest after the Test rigours. Bhuvneshwar Kumar hasn't played ODIs for two months, Mohammed Shami is returning to shorter versions after a similar span and could be fatigued after the Test duties and Khaleel Ahmed is still teething in. All of these factors would contribute to Kohli missing Hardik.
The skipper did agree that someone of Hardik's resources will doubtlessly be missed, but quickly put on a nonchalant visage, pointing out India's well-stocked finger-spinning resources.
"We played in India against the West Indies with a finger spinner and a wrist spinner. So it's good that we have someone like Ravindra Jadeja who can do the all-rounder's role if a scenario like that occurs. So we are not too stressed as a team," Kohli said on match-eve.
Inarguably, Jadeja is canny, especially if the surface is dry. He had demonstrated that in Australia as well as England. Like Hardik, he can clear the ropes and is an effervescent fielder. But still, he doesn't furnish the flexibility that Hardik provides. Squeezing him would make the team spin-heavy, with wrist-spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal already staking claim. So Jadeja's addition would mean that one of them will be uncomfortably sacrificed for an extra seamer to shore up the pace department.
For Hardik himself, the ban robs him of vital game-time, which he has been deprived of since the injury lay-off. On his return, he has played a solitary Ranji match and sat through the last two Tests as literal passenger. The ODIs, thus, would have given him enough time to groove in. At the same time, Rahul will not be missed as much as Pandya. It's unlikely that even if he was available, he would have been picked. Especially after his terrible drought of runs in Tests. Moreover, his ODI career has hardly hit the high notes after the arresting start. Anyway the top-three spots are already locked. Nonetheless, he provided Kohli a chance to experiment with the middle-order, the No.4, 5 and 6 spots unsettled with less than six months for the World Cup. But there are bigger concerns for Kohli than balance, for the whole scandal has blown into an image-shattering storm for the team. But Kohli chose his words carefully to distance the identity of the team from the players.
"We, definitely, as the Indian cricket team, do not support views like that and that has been communicated," he remarked. He didn't stop there. He elaborated though without getting moralistic: "Definitely it has to hit anyone hard, they will definitely understand the things that have not gone right. From the Indian cricket team's point of view, any inappropriate comments that are made in that scenario are something that we definitely don't support and the two concerned players felt what has gone wrong and they have understood the magnitude of what's happened."
All he could sigh was that the scandal didn't coincide with a Test series defeat. But a distraction as India begin their World Cup quest could have been largely avoidable. The scattered crowd were still clapping and screeching for autographs when he walked back after the nets, but Pandya's ears were still immune to the noise.