The change that Hardik brought within
In the last six months, he has matured into a force of belief India need in the World Cup
Public memory can be short so here is a recap of the India-Pakistan match, not Sunday’s but the Asia Cup opener in August. That was the game Hardik Pandya used the short-pitched ball well on a pitch that aided bounce to get three wickets before hitting a 17-ball 33 in a five-wicket win. Of the three wickets, two were of Mohammed Rizwan and Iftikhar Ahmed, Pakistan’s top two scorers that match. Just to give a little bit of context to Pandya’s innings, he was on 18 off 10 after 18 overs, with India needing 21 off 12 balls. He hit three boundaries—off Haris Rauf here as well—in the 19th over before slapping Mohammad Nawaz—again—for a huge six to seal the win. Pandya failed in the second match against Pakistan, getting out for zero before conceding 44 in four over in a heavy five-wicket defeat.
And then, this Sunday, Pandya was again part of a 113-run partnership with Virat Kohli that resuscitated India’s chase from what looked like a point of no-return. Some people have a nose for the occasion. Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli—the list isn’t too long. But is Pandya close to joining it as well? If you look at the last few months Pandya has had, the wins he has orchestrated, that too coming back from a situation where his status as an all-rounder was under deep scrutiny, this sure feels like a redemptive journey ticking all the boxes.
Firstly, let’s not forget this is a man who has won all five IPL finals he has played, once as captain of Gujarat Titans. The latest was arguably his toughest assignment because Pandya not only had to lead but also volunteered to be the middle-order anchor and shepherd tough chases. In ICC events however, Pandya hasn’t been able to take India across the line. The effort was there for everyone to see though. It was his final over against Bangladesh that carried India to the semi-final of the 2016 T20 World Cup. Next year, in the Champions Trophy final, he gave Pakistan a hiding, hitting 76 off 43 balls but failed to prevent a massive defeat. In the 2019 World Cup semi-final, Pandya again tried to resurrect the innings with Rishabh Pant after India lost three early wickets but New Zealand eventually won.
It is thus not difficult to guess what’s on the ‘to-do’ list of a man who had just won his first IPL as a captain in his first season. "Absolutely to win the World Cup for India no matter what happens," Hardik had said. "I am going to give it everything I have.”
Giving everything to trying to win the World Cup means different things to different people. To Pandya it started with a role reversal in IPL—of assuming more responsibility—from the time he was used more like a batting gun-for-hire. It explains why his IPL batting strike rate has plummeted from almost 179 in 2020 to 131 this season. He hasn’t changed much in T20Is, except for the fact that he is scoring more now. This year has been the most prolific of Pandya’s career apart from giving him his highest score so far—71* against Australia in Mohali last month. Over the course of just six months, Pandya the batter has matured beyond expectation.
With Mumbai Indians, Pandya’s role was limited by its brevity because all he could get was around 10-15 balls. But the moment Pandya decided to play longer innings by promoting himself at Gujarat Titans, his scope as an influencer increased. You saw the same version in the Asia Cup, and then here where he showed impeccable judgment in choosing who to attack and who to defend against. This version of Pandya can be calculative, take measured risk and choose to explode whenever he deems necessary. If it hadn’t been Kohli on Sunday, this year has given adequate confidence that Pandya would have surely come to the rescue.
But before that, Pandya was willing to ensure Kohli stayed till the last ball. "I sensed a lot of pressure in our room, I could sense it,” Pandya said in an interview to bcci.tv after the match. “But for me, I don't know, I was very numb today. Even when I came on the ground, I was very happy and I was speaking to Rahul (Dravid) sir as well initially, I wouldn't say he was tense but he told me: 'you have done a lot of things', and 'be calm' and all that.
“I had to tell him: 'sir, please understand I'm happy to be here. Ten months back, I was working in my space and I had no idea and this is where I wanted to be, irrelevant of what happens. Just happy to be here, playing with all the best cricketers in the world, and they are my brothers,” before turning to Kohli and saying: “I would have taken a bullet for you at that time but I would not have let you get out. My goal was simple, whatever I can do to make your life easier, I'll do it. You have done it so many times and no one is better at handling pressure than you.”
When a player starts treating the game this way, you realise he doesn’t need to be motivated. He just needs to be left alone, at his job, in his zone.