Sunday’s Chepauk crowd reserved their loudest cheers for just three Indian batsmen. Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni were two of the more obvious choices who commanded that sort of love, but so did India’s 23-year-old No.7. The circumstance in which Hardik Pandya arrived in the middle demanded excess adulation and egging on from the stands as the top-order had downed their tools during early sighting of pace, bounce and swing.
Chepauk’s chants were more pleas for the last recognised batsman to just stick by the former skipper and lifetime local hero, and be part of the script of his fabulous return to the hallowed venue. Hardik did a lot more.
It was only in October 2016, against New Zealand, when Hardik began to feature in India’s ODI middle-order scheme of things. A 32-ball 36 while batting at No. 8 – below Axar Patel – in the second ODI sowed the seeds for his immediate future. Shortly after, England posed tougher hurdles.
Hardik’s particular liking for power-hitting was spotted four years ago when he was 19 and hit Irfan Pathan for 22 in an over in a practice game. But there’s a lot more that falls under the ambit of being the Indian cricket team’s finisher. Not all situations will be tailor-made for a late tee off. Not all merit the hit-or-miss attitude and guaranteed glamour.
Some require the ugliest of shows, and the temperament to have a recovery mode for long spells even before thinking about hitting the ball in the air. There was doubt if the clean-hitting Hardik could thrive when tied down. Or pick wickets when called upon.
The marked improvement showed in the numbers against England. From finding his feet against New Zealand, Pandya rose to playing a match-winning knock in the series opener in Pune and then playing a hand in Kolkata that nearly denied England their only win in the three-match series. The bowling stocks picked up too, giving Kohli the flexibility of using him up top or through the middle as he finished India’s best in the series.
On the very last day of the Champions Trophy in England a couple of months ago, Hardik gave another glimpse of his range. After Pakistan’s formidable attack had made mincemeat of India’s top-order, he set out on returning the favour. A glut of sixes in a 43-ball 76 gave India an outside chance of defending their title, but it wasn’t to be.
And then there was Sunday.
Australia swore by fuller lengths in their skillful dismantling of India’s top-order, but changed course for Hardik. He was peppered with the short ball, with the hope of luring him in giving into the adrenalin of gaining the upper hand and committing a mistake. The partnership between Pandya and Dhoni had to be built on risk-free cricket, and they motored along. The first boundary during the alliance came only in the 28th over, when Smith was slow to get his hands down and under the outside edge that flew off Pandya’s bat. Singles were the predominant source of runs for the two, when they weren’t finding the fielders. The two played out 41 dot balls between the fall of Jadhav in the 22nd over and up until the end of the 36th, when the game was flipped on its head.
What started as a chip shot just over a fielder placed between mid-off and mid-on, soon converted into a full blown attack against Adam Zampa. The leggie kept his length full in search of a miscue, but it never came. What came however, were three sixes – over long-off and long-on. The Zampa over fetched 24 runs, taking Hardik from 35 off 45 to 58 off 50. This was as blatant a cue as ever for India to find the next gear. Hardik whacked two more sixes – off Marcus Stoinis and Zampa – before perishing while attempting another, for his career-best score of 83 from just 66 balls. It was a knock that will perhaps be remembered for his battering of Zampa in an over, with the sort of clean hitting that he’s fast becoming associated with.
But, it also deserves to go down as one where his technique to grind out came into play, before he slowly moved on to be the more dominant partner in the 118-run stand, with Dhoni scoring only 29 of those.
“We lost wickets, and it was important for me to make a partnership with MSD [Dhoni]. I mean, I have learnt a lot from him, still learning. We were speaking how we need to change things up. It is a pleasure to play with him. I was trying to hit out before the Zampa over as well. Generally my plan is hitting straight – I don’t care if long-off is there or long-on is there. If I connect well, I know I will clear the boundary,” Hardik said at the innings break.
Pandya put his seal on the end game for Australia with a superb knuckle ball that foxed Steve Smith, and virtually ended the chase at the very beginning.
“I can be a proper fast bowler and a proper batsman as well. I am a very good fielder. So I guess I will be very handy,” were Hardik’s words to Cricbuzz before embarking on his first international assignment in December 2015. Vanity has always appeared to be masquerading as self-belief in his words and demeanour.
But beneath the showy surface, there’s a lot of substance.
Hardik may not stop telling you how he dreamt about his outstanding innings on the previous night, or how he’s not built to wilt under pressure like most others his age. Take that with a pinch of salt and a chuckle. But not his performances.
On a night against his toughest opponent yet in a growing career, Hardik emerged India’s MVP.