Hardik Pandya buries IPL hate, converts boos into monstrous batting pyrotechnics en route to rediscovering his mojo | Crickit
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Hardik Pandya buries IPL hate, converts boos into monstrous batting pyrotechnics en route to rediscovering his mojo

Jun 23, 2024 11:37 AM IST

The Hardik Pandya engine was positively purring by now. When he manages to unshackle his mind, which isn’t all the time nowadays, he is a free spirit.

Until Saturday, Hardik Pandya had only three Twenty20 International half-centuries. Not surprising, because in 73 previous innings, he had batted above No. 5 just four times. The last of those fifties came 14 innings and a year and a half back, against England in the semifinal of the T20 World Cup in Adelaide. It was the second straight time India had lost a match in which Pandya had topped the 50-run mark.

India's Hardik Pandya celebrates his half century on the last ball of India's turn during the ICC men's Twenty20 World Cup 2024 Super Eight cricket match between India and Bangladesh (AFP)
India's Hardik Pandya celebrates his half century on the last ball of India's turn during the ICC men's Twenty20 World Cup 2024 Super Eight cricket match between India and Bangladesh (AFP)

In T20s, more than any other format, individual milestones have ceased to hold the same significance as in the past. It’s all about impact. Yes, a 40-ball century is massive both from a landmark perspective and the team’s standpoint, but especially at the international level, how often do you get 40-ball hundreds? Oftentimes, a 15-ball 25 can be a game-changer. Or a 27-ball fifty a game-sealer. As happened at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound against Bangladesh.

Presented with the best batting surface of the tournament and gifted first use of it by a generous Najmul Hossain Shanto, India made their first flying start of this World Cup. Hitherto scratchy and out of kilter, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli finally sparkled, after four damp squibs; numerically, the opening salvo was 39, but it spanned just 22 deliveries. A statement had been made, the tone set.

India kept scoring briskly. They also kept losing wickets. That’s acceptable in modern 20-over cricket. The fall of wickets shouldn’t be, and isn’t, a deterrent to taking risks, to playing shots. It helps when someone of the stroke-making calibre of Axar Patel is pencilled in at No. 7, Ravindra Jadeja at No. 8.

And so, even though they were four wickets down in their Super Eight clash against Bangladesh after 11.4 overs, India’s total read 108. Rishabh Pant had just fallen after translating a 15-ball 12 to a 24-ball 36, Shivam Dube was content to knock the ball around.

Someone had to take charge. To push the needle, as Rahul Dravid loves to say, to provide the impetus, to convert a potentially middling total to a match-winning one. Pandya decided he would be that someone.

How Hardik Pandya became the ‘main act’

Two days back, against Afghanistan in Bridgetown, Pandya had shown signs of rediscovering his batting mojo. Of particular interest was a straight six against Noor Ahmad, the left-arm wrist-spinner, taken downtown with a minimum of fuss. When he is batting well and feeling good, Pandya’s bat-swing is a thing of beauty; the high backlift, the elaborate follow through, the huge distance the ball travels. This one travelled and travelled and travelled until it was halted by the huge press box into which the ball thudded with a ‘thwack’. Perhaps, Pandya was getting his own back for all the bad press after his Mumbai Indians misadventure in IPL 2024.

Against Afghanistan, Pandya was a secondary act to the Suryakumar Yadav show, though his 32 off 24 was a crucial component in India’s tally of 181 for eight. On Saturday, Pandya became the main act, perhaps tired of playing second fiddle. Sometimes, you need only one ball to gauge the mood of the batter, to understand his mindset, to recognise his intent and intentions. With Pandya, you almost knew on Saturday that an impact innings was imminent, never mind its magnitude.

Pandya is the vice-captain of the team, so he has the additional responsibility of looking out for others too. Dube was sleepwalking through the early part of his stint, Pandya’s job to keep him from giving in to frustration. When the strapping left-hander finally shed his diffidence and clattered Shakib Al Hasan over mid-wicket to reveal his spin-slayer mode, Pandya punched his partner’s glove with ferocious delight. By then, he himself had showcased his power, staying in his crease and flat-batting off-spinner Mahedi Hasan back over his head for a humongous six, then out-thinking the bowler by pressing forward and drilling the next ball through covers for a turf-singeing four.

The Pandya engine was positively purring by now. When he manages to unshackle his mind, which isn’t all the time nowadays, he is a free spirit. His batting is an expression of his mood, of his thought process, of how much he is enjoying himself and having fun. When all the positive boxes are ticked, like they were against Bangladesh, few can entertain like the man from Vadodara.

The last of three intelligent fours in the final over from Mustafizur Rahman, the alleged master of cutters, took Pandya to his half-century. Greeted with a lop-sided smile, and with a bit of relief, one suspects. But not celebrated outlandishly. Maybe that’s reserved for another day, a bigger stage, a match with more significant ramifications.

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