When Dennis Lillee came to Chennai to head up the MRF Pace Foundation, several years ago, one of the first questions he was asked at a media interaction was “So, when will you produce the next great Indian fast bowler?” Lillee, without being disrespectful (but being true to his typically wicked sense of humour), replied. “I will have to find the first Indian fast bowler. India has produced many fine mediumpacers, but fast bowlers, we are still looking.”

While that might have been a slight exaggeration, it is fair to say that Indian cricket has forever been known for its batting and spin bowling, and no visiting team has set foot on Indian soil expecting tackling quick bowling to be a primary challenge.

In that sense, 2017 has been a year of change – a change of coach, a change of mentality, and Virat Kohli taking the team and Indian cricket firmly under his thumb and moulding it to his fashion. Fitness has become the most crucial factor, and players are rested and rotated without concern for how the rest of the world may judge these decisions. One of Kohli’s pet projects in the year was Hardik Pandya.

Initially it was assumed that this was simply because the two are birds of a feather. They are both exuberantly expressive on the field while being fairly sober off it, both love their tattoos and bling, and both march to their own tune. However, while these might help the two get along, the real reason Kohli backed Pandya, far more than anyone could understand, was the effect he had on the balance of the team.

India’s Test captains of the recent past have been desperate for a top order batsman who could bowl medium pace, and while Stuart Binny was used off and on in this role, without having the room to establish himself as a batsman, and Rishi Dhawan was given a go and found wanting at the highest level, Pandya made the transition from a demonic hard-hitter in Twenty20 cricket to a medium-fast bowler who could consistently land it at close to 140 kph, after a stint with India A.

What Pandya’s evolution (from biffer who chipped in with a few overs to someone who could be counted on to send down 10- 15 overs in an innings and be effective even when there wasn’t extravagant swing on offer) allowed was for India to field a full pace attack whenever the occasion demanded it.

Mohammad Shami remains the leader of the pack, the real deal who bowls at pace with exceptional wicket-taking sense, setting up batsmen, sussing out the line and length needed in specific conditions. Ishant Sharma is beyond experienced and can be relied on to do a holding job if that’s what the situation demands. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has added a yard of pace without losing out on accuracy or the devastating early swing that routinely brings him early wickets. Umesh Yadav adds skiddy pace to the mix and becomes lethal on abrasive surfaces, where reverse swing comes into play.

Without Pandya, India had to make do with only two of these options at any time in the past, and if they misjudged the conditions, there was a real chance that a price would be paid. Also, the very knowledge that the frontline seamers did not have to do the heavy lifting or the donkey work of bowling over after over, allowed them to focus on their strengths in short bursts.

On his own, Pandya, in the three Test matches he has played, has barely begun to explore the ways in which he can contribute to the Indian team’s success. But, even a puzzle of a dramatic Van Gogh still life will have a few pieces not touched by dramatic genius. Like the hint of blue that makes the big fluffy clouds more dramatic, or the plainness of the vase that allows sunflowers to shine bright, Pandya is the bits-and-pieces cricketer who could become an allrounder that completes the puzzle. He’s only one piece of the puzzle, but a vital one that makes India’s potent fast bowling attack complete.