19 September 2018. The scary scenes from the Asia Cup encounter between India and Pakistan in Dubai still haunt Indian cricket fans. Hardik Pandya had to be stretchered off the field after he clutched his back and fell down during his follow-through in the 18th over of Pakistan's innings. What came after that was back surgery and an extended period on the sidelines for Pandya.
Even when he made a comeback on the national side, Pandya wasn't functioning at his full potential, at least not as a bowler. He was hardly able to bowl more than a couple of overs. In most matches, he wasn't even bowling. That's when he decided to take a break to work on his fitness, to become the all-rounder he always wanted to be; the all-rounder that India wanted and needed him to be.
Fast forward to 28 August 2022, Pandya’s life has come full circle. On Sunday, he was back playing against the same team at the same venue and in the same tournament. Bad memories at the back of his mind might have been haunting him, but this Hardik Pandya was built differently.
He was calmer, more mature, and even more confident than he used to be. More than that, the wheel of fortune was ready to welcome him with open arms and reward him for his hard work during all these years.
Pakistan couldn’t quite figure out what hit them this time as Pandya destroyed their batting unit with his fiery spell of 3/26 and then went on to smash an unbeaten 33 off just 17 deliveries to take the match away from them.
All three of his victims – Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Rizwan, and Khushdil Shah – were dismissed by hard-length deliveries that the batters found too difficult to cope with. Pandya’s bouncers not only extracted uneasy bounce off the surface but he was also bowling them at speeds over 140 km/h, thus making it difficult for the batters to score or survive out there. He played to his strengths perfectly and reiterated the same during the post-India’s Game-changer With the Batmatch interview.
"In bowling, it's important to assess the situations and use your weapons. For me, bowling short and hard lengths have been my strengths. It's about using them well and asking the right questions to make the batters commit a mistake."Hardik Pandya said after the match
India’s Game-Changer With the Bat
Moreover, just when Pakistan thought they had regained control in the match, having reduced India to 89/4 with only 34 deliveries left and 59 runs to defend, Pandya walked in and turned the tide in India’s favour again. He started off steadily without taking too many risks and then took the game right into the final over.
Hardik was on 14 off just 10 deliveries when Haris Rauf started bowling the penultimate over. But he finished on an unbeaten 33 off just 17 deliveries when the match ended with two deliveries to spare. That's a total of 19 runs scored in the seven deliveries that he faced in the final two overs, which also included a six to win the match off Mohammad Nawaz’s bowling.
With this performance, Pandya has well and truly established himself as India's T20 MVP. He delivered big wickets to thwart Pakistan's progress in the match and scored match-winning runs when India looked pretty much down and out of the contest.
He is a real juggernaut now, confident of destroying any obstacle in his path. He exuded the same kind of confidence and self-belief in the post-match interview.
"We only needed 7 off the last over but even if we needed 15, I'd have fancied myself. I know the bowler is under more pressure than me in the 20th over. I try to keep things simple."Hardik Pandya
The ‘Project Reconstruction’ We Witnessed in IPL
This is a tremendous achievement for Pandya considering how he had nowhere near his current abilities a year back. An improvement in his performance was first visible during the IPL 2022 season that was held six months ago. Pandya went on to enjoy a stellar outing as he led the Gujarat Titans to the title and also finished as their highest run-scorer with 487 runs to his name. The 28-year-old also went on to claim eight wickets, including match-winning figures of 3/17 in the IPL final against Rajasthan Royals.
Since then, Pandya has stepped up his performances every time he has taken the field for India. Nobody gave him a chance to make a successful comeback from a back injury as bad as that, but Pandya rose like a phoenix from the ashes, and has come back stronger than ever!
This year, he has represented India in 14 T20Is so far while amassing 314 runs at an average of 34.88 and a strike rate of 144.03. These are superb numbers for anyone playing a role as demanding as that of a middle-order batter. He has shown the ability to deliver under pressure and has even finished off matches for his team.
Pandya has also been pretty successful with his bowling, claiming 11 wickets at an average of 24 – numbers that are good enough for a fifth bowling option. In fact, all 11 of his wickets have come in the nine matches he has played away from home this year, and his average shoots up to an impressive 18.45 in this case. This sums up how his bowling style and natural hard length is more suitable for overseas conditions, that is, on pitches that have bounce and carry for the pacers. He got exactly that in Dubai on Sunday, and Pakistan found themselves at the receiving end of his lethal bowling.
The presence of the 28-year-old completely changes the look and feel of the Indian playing XI, especially in SENA countries where spin-bowling all-rounders like Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel, Krunal Pandya, or even Deepak Hooda aren't able to add the necessary balance to the side, owing to the conditions that are not suitable to their kind of bowling.
This is where Pandya's role as a pace bowling all-rounder becomes so important. He is a reliable batter and can give the team four overs of relentless pace at the same time.
Indian captain Rohit Sharma was full of praise for Pandya after their win against Pakistan on Sunday.
"Since the time he (Hardik) has made his comeback, he's been brilliant. When he was not part of the team, he figured out what he needed to do to his body and his fitness regime, and now he is clocking 140+ easily. His batting quality we all know and it's been brilliant since his comeback," Sharma said during the presentation ceremony.
"He is a lot calmer now and more confident about what he wants to do, whether it's with the bat or with the ball. He can bowl really quick, we saw that today with those short balls. It was always about just understanding his game and he's doing that well now," the Indian skipper added.
This is Hardik Pandya 2.0: a fitter, stronger, and calmer version of the previous one, and he is here to rule, to win, to dominate, and to lead by example! Pandya already led India during the tour of Ireland recently and will be a worthy candidate to step into Rohit Sharma's shoes, once the latter decides to call time on his career. For now, though, Pandya just needs to focus on giving his best for India in this Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup that starts in Australia later this year.