A chase against Pakistan with Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja battling for India? That scene is bound to throw up a memory that is hard to make peace with for Indian cricket fans. But on a Sunday night in Dubai, Hardik Pandya was on a mission to make a happy memory, against the same opponent, albeit several years later from the 2017 Champions Trophy final.
After a match-changing spell with the ball to break the back of the Pakistan innings with 3/25, Pandya followed it up with an unbeaten 17-ball 33 with the bat. The allrounder, as he is now, played a stellar role in India winning the match by 5 wickets in the final over run-chase in the 2022 Asia Cup Group A match on Sunday.
In the five years since that loss in the Champions Trophy final, Pandya has grown. Now, the swagger that rubbed some the wrong way and the almost nonchalant confidence still hasn’t changed but he’s now walking the talk and how.
To use a cliche, Pandya is older, wiser and calmer.
Captain Rohit Sharma, who has looked at Pandya since early days from close quarters during their time with Mumbai Indians together, can attest to that.In the post-match presentation ceremony, the Indian skipper spoke about Pandya who is now fit and hungrier than ever.
“Since the time he (Hardik) has made his comeback, he’s been brilliant. When he was not part of the team, he figured what he needs 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,” the captain said.
“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 quickly, we saw that today with those short balls. It was always about just understanding his game and he’s doing that well now. In a high-pressure situation with 10 runs per over needed, you can panic but he never showed any of that.”
The India-Pakistan clashes off late haven’t been able to live up to their billing in recent years for several reasons. But after India’s 10-wicket defeat against them in the T20 World Cup last year, there was some anticipation for the contest being level this time around when they met at the Asia Cup. Pakistan, who have not had the best record against the defending champions in this format, were going in far more assured and confident because of that. Additionally, the pitch dished out in Dubai was expected to trouble the batters and only levelled the playing field.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar produced the best bowling figures by an Indian against Pakistan in the format, even without any swing on offer, the younger pacers Avesh Khan and Arshdeep were tasked with piling on the pressure with the dot balls. But it was Hardik Pandya, who was only a tentative bowling option at the last T20 World Cup and being preserved because of his fragile fitness after injury, who took responsibility to ensure the senior bowler wasn’t the only one leading the pack.
After Kumar sent back the dangerous Babar Azam for 10 and Avesh managed to sneak in a Fakhar Zaman dismissal, the job to ensure that the pressure was on Pakistan even in the middle overs rested upon Pandya and the spinners. Meanwhile, the process to launch a recovery in the innings had already begun by Iftikhar Ahmed and Mohammad Rizwan.
Pandya, in his third over of his spell, produced the moments that truly halted the momentum of the innings. Bowling at over 140kph, he hurried Iftikhar with a bouncer, drawing a faint edge in the very first delivery. In the following five deliveries, he conceded only three runs.
The last over of his spell saw him consistently running in with deliveries over 140kph, and two of those were the same hit-the-deck-hard kind of short deliveries that saw a well-set Rizwan and a rather confused Khushdil succumb. With those two wickets, half of the Pakistani batting line-up was in the hut and India had comfortably found themselves in the driver’s seat before the final five overs.
In the post match presentation, Hardik analysed his own bowling performance saying, “In bowling, it’s important to assess the situations and use your weapons. For me, bowling short and the hard lengths have been my strengths. It’s about using them well and asking the right questions to make the batters commit a mistake.”
India were once again being troubled by a Pakistani bowler with the new ball in hand. This time, T20I debutant Naseem Shah was the one asking questions. KL Rahul was already back in the pavilion, Virat Kohli could have been out in the first over too and Rohit was looking rather uncomfortable. Although Kohli displayed flashes of brilliance in his 34-ball stay, he couldn’t really convert it into a bigger score. By the 15th over, Naseem also successfully removed Suryakumar Yadav, the most dangerous T20I Indian batter and so the chase was really down to Ravindra Jadeja and Pandya.
India still needed 59 off 34 balls and with the pitch not making it any easier for the batters and Mohammad Nawaz finding breakthroughs in regular intervals, Naseem and Shahnawaz Dahani bowling economically, meant that it was still a tough ask.
Pandya’s found himself in familiar if not the same situations before. A look at his performances for Gujarat Titans in the Indian Premier League 2022 will give one a good idea of that. And so, he coupled with Jadeja to switch into the hard-hitting mode.
While Naseem had been well handled by Jadeja, Hardik unleashed himself against Haris Rauf in the penultimate over. From 21 off 12 balls, he brought down the equation to 7 needed off 6.
In the final over, Nawaz sent back Jadeja in the very first delivery, exposing Dinesh Karthik to spin. Pandya was then on strike in the third delivery with India needing 6 off 4 deliveries. Nawaz ensured that a dot ball meant things only got tenser.
Karthik, slightly concerned that he couldn’t run to take strike was then assured by a ‘Chill, I got this’ gesture from Pandya. It’s the same nonchalance rooted in his swagger and confidence that has stayed with him all these years, the one that can now win India matches.
Pandya then smashed the next delivery for a huge six over long on ensuring his team clinched a rare India vs Pakistan thriller. Karthik, who knows a thing or two about mad finishes, on the other end, bowed down to his friend and team-mate in that moment in acknowledgment.
Dissecting his batting, Pandya said, “In a chase like this, you always plan over-by-over. I always knew that there is one young bowler and also one left-arm spinner. 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.”
It was at this venue in 2018 that he got stretchered out of the field because of his back issues. He remembered that last night as he sat down for a chat with Jadeja. He is indeed older, wiser and calmer now but the swagger and confidence is always there. It is about as Hardik Pandya as it can get and it looks like that combination is working out well for him once again... and crucially, for India.