The intrigue surrounding Hardik Pandya's return, following back surgery, has taken a new twist with the allrounder not featuring in India's 16-member T20I squad for the tour of New Zealand. The five-member selection panel led by MSK Prasad picked the squad mid-afternoon on Sunday, but the BCCI only made it public close to midnight.
The development came a day after Hardik failed to board the flight with the India A squad that left for New Zealand from New Delhi on Saturday. On December 23, Hardik was included by the selectors as part of the India A squad for two 50-over matches to played later this week. However, on Saturday, Vijay Shankar was named as his replacement.
Commenting on Hardik's fitness and inclusion in the India A squad in December, Prasad had said: "Hardik would be looked at in the third week of January."
However, today, the BCCI said Hardik would more need time to come back to full fitness. "Vijay Shankar has been included in the India A squad for New Zealand since Hardik Pandya's rehabilitation process is taking longer than expected," the BCCI release said.
The news comes as a setback for Hardik, who had been optimistic about making his international return during the New Zealand tour. However, he first needed to get a clearance on his fitness.
On Saturday, media reports emerged about Hardik having failed a fitness test. However, Hardik's personal trainer S Rajnikanth, who has also worked with various India age-group teams and is part of the Delhi Capitals set-up, told Times of India that Hardik did not fail any test, but the issue was the workload he would come under if he played.
"He is 100% fit," Rajnikanth said. "There is no doubt about that. But I don't want him to take the workload of back-to-back international matches. No fitness test has been conducted for Pandya yet, so there's no question of him failing any test."
Generally, Indian players need to get a clearance from the medical staff at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru. However after Hardik opted to work with Rajnikanth, the NCA, which is headed by former India captain Rahul Dravid, informed the BCCI that the player needed to get the fitness clearance from his personal medical staff.
ESPNcricinfo understands Rajnikanth had been updating Hardik's fitness schedule and relaying recovery information to the BCCI, which was what the selectors had relied upon when they picked him for the India A squad. It is understood Rajnikanth was clear that although Hardik was in the clear fitness-wise, he was yet to attain complete bowling fitness, which is reliant on workload management, which was what he had relayed in his latest update to the BCCI.
'From lifting 100 kgs I was not able to lift my legs'
Speaking recently about the back surgery, Hardik admitted he was that it could be career-threatening and hence he deliberated for long before going under the knife. He had begun to realise that although he had been "managing" his back for the last five years, it was beginning to affect his fitness and performance.
"Hundred per cent," Hardik told India Today in an interview, about how he was scared to go into surgery. "This was my first thought when in Bangalore after the South Africa series. I stopped feeling my left leg, stopped as in almost 40% I was not feeling it properly. That was the symptom when we decided to go under the knife."
The injury itself, Hardik said, was five years old. "Injury happened five years back. No one knew. I have managed the injury for five years. This was the time when I started feeling I am not feeling myself, the way I was. The pain was taking over my efforts and all; instead of putting 100% effort I was only able to put only 50-60%. And then I just felt it was not right for myself and for the team."
It was India's physiotherapist Nitin Patel who had eventually convinced Hardik. "And first thought when Nitin Patel, the Indian team physio, came and said 'you know we might have to go under the knife', my first reaction - 'no chance'. I said no chance, I am going to manage it. Then he explained for five years we have been managing... he was the first person who saw me five years back. It took me one night to digest the fact that I might have to go for surgery. I didn't completely tell myself that we are going for surgery.
"People have scared me and how, saying that back surgery is this serious, back surgery will finish this, it is very difficult and all. Then I now [felt] this is a little scary. But then I was like I can't go because someone else had a problem after surgery. I am a different individual, I have a different body type, I have a different work ethic. I know I am going to make a strong comeback and I am going to do the exact right thing which I am supposed to do to make sure my back does not get more hampered."
The recovery was equally difficult, and Hardik exchanged messages with his captain Virat Kohli, saying no one should undergo a similar experience. "I was emotionally challenging. From lifting 100 kgs I was not able to lift my legs," Hardik said.
"First 15 days were the most difficult part as I said no walking, I was not able to move. Nothing. I had two people to just look after me just to make sure even I move from the bed. Slowly, slowly I started training, started training with a pillow, just lying on the bed straight, which was my first exercise. From there slowly, slowly moving exactly one part, one part, bowling slowly once I started picking up the strength, started gaining weight.
"After surgery I went to 69 [kg], which I have never been in my life! So the amount of muscle I lost was, it was just scary. I thought I would lose my power and all, but touch wood I am back to 74 [kg] right now."