India captain Virat Kohli on Saturday said Hardik Pandya's prowess as a batter for the crucial number six spot is such that his replacement "can't be created overnight" and his place in the playing XI is non-negotiable even if he can't bowl full steam in the T20 World Cup.
Pandya underwent a lower back surgery in 2019 and since then has bowled occasionally, raising questions if he can be played as a pure batter in the premier event.
Kohli, though, on the eve of the Pakistan game, sealed the debate.
"Honesty, I feel, Hardik presently with his physical condition is getting better in terms of being able to bowl two overs for us at a certain stage in this tournament," Kohli said at the pre-match press conference when asked if the flamboyant Baroda man will be selected in case he doesn't bowl.
Kohli has himself bowled in the warm-up game against Australia and said that if need be, they have manageable options.
"....and we strongly believe that we can make most of the opportunity that we have at hand till the time he starts bowling.
"We have considered a couple of other options to chip in for a over or two. So we are not bothered at all. What he brings in at that spot is something that one can't create overnight," the skipper was crystal clear.
Pandya had played as a batter during the T20 series in Australia back in late 2020 and did considerably well.
"I was always in favour of backing him in Australia as a batter purely and we saw what he did and how he can take the game away from opposition when he is in full flow.
"These things (if he would be dropped) from a talking or discussion point of view feel very interesting that if he doesn't bowl, will he be left out? But we understand the value he brings to the team as a number six batter and in world cricket, if you look around, there are specialists who do that job," he asserted.
Kohli was categorical when he said that he believes in Pandya's impact as a batter and would not push him to bowl till the time he is fit enough.
"It's very important to have that guy in T20 especially, play an impact innings at that stage even when the chips are down and who can play a long innings in that way," he said.
"For us that is more valuable than forcing something on him for which he is not ready. But he is motivated and keen to start giving us a couple of overs and obviously then the balance becomes better but we are pretty confident as to how we are heading into the start of the tournament," the skipper settled it once and for all.
The Indian skipper also stated that the management have already "spoken about our combinations" but did not disclose the starting XI. The 32-year-old asserted that the whole side is 'well prepared' ahead of Sunday's clash.
"We have spoken about our combinations but I am not going to reveal it right now but we have put in place a very balanced team that we feel covers all bases properly," he said.
"We are pretty confident in terms of execution as well. Guys have been playing a lot of T20 cricket in the IPL and everyone is playing well and that's a positive thing for the team.
"Now it's purely about execution out there in the middle which everyone is confident to do so. Role clarity is something that we have addressed already. We feel we are well prepared."
India have beaten Pakistan in all of their 12 matches at the T20 and 50-over World Cups, but Kohli downplayed team India's unbeaten record against their opponents.
"We never discussed these things, about our record and past performance. These things create distractions. What matters is how we prepare and execute on that particular day, regardless of the opposition.
"Pakistan, according to me is a very strong team and always has been a strong side," he said.
"You have to play your best cricket against them, because they have lots of talent and players who can change the game."
'Won't provide fodder to controversy seekers'
With a lot of theories floating around about the reason for stepping down as T20I captain, skipper Kohli said that he is not ready to add fuel to fire. "I have already explained myself a lot and I don't think I need to harp on that anymore," Kohli said when asked the reason to announce it before the T20 World Cup.
"Our focus is to play well in this World Cup and do what we need to do as a team. Rest people are trying to dig up things that doesn't exist and I am not someone who is ever going to give fodder to that," Kohli, who was visibly irritated at the question, said.
"I have explained myself very honestly and openly and if people feel there's more to it than what I have already told, I feel pretty bad for them. That's certainly not the case."
(With PTI and AFP inputs)