India were playing their second ODI on the limited-overs’ tour of New Zealand at Mount Maunganui in January earlier this year. They were already leading the five-match series 1-0, after a brilliant bowling performance and an effortless chase at Napier.

After winning the toss that afternoon, the obvious thing to do was bowl again. Yet, Virat Kohli – who likes to chase as much as the sun likes to rise – decided to bat. The logic, revealed post match, was clear – ahead of the World Cup, India wanted to practice batting first and putting up a par-plus total. Getting those extra 20-30 runs tends to prove crucial in a World Cup (or Champions Trophy).

India scored 324-4 that day, and won by 90 runs. Kohli, though, wasn’t happy. Those extra 20-30 runs hadn’t come at the death, he had lamented.

June 9, 2019. India played their second game in the on-going World Cup. India build on the solid foundation laid by the top-three to reach 352-5. Throughout the innings, the predictive score had hung around 330-340, but that final push did come through. In a high-scoring game that Australia lost by a mere 36 runs, it was what mattered in the end.

The difference between the two innings? A certain Hardik Pandya.

Four months ago, in New Zealand, there was no Pandya. He was then serving suspension for ill-judged comments made on a television show. While the punishment was warranted, the matter stretched on endlessly causing the team management to fret over their World Cup plans. They had to make-do of course, and in that series, it was Ambati Rayudu who was manning the middle order.

At Mount Maunganui that day, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan scored half-centuries. Kohli got 43. They amounted for 60 per cent of the team’s total runs. It was in keeping with India’s ODI template – the top-order will play out maximum time and set a base to launch an assault in the final 10-12 overs. Yet, with Rayudu at that lynchpin position, things seemed disjointed.

No, it is not about kicking a man when he is down (and out of the World Cup squad). Instead, it is about revealing why the choice was made to leave him out (for Vijay Shankar and KL Rahul as it seems now). Rayudu’s game had a bit of unorthodoxy about it, but it lacks the power-hitting aspect. If the top-order batted a majority of the overs, and all hitting was dependent on the lower middle-order, what is the point of Rayudu occupying that number 4 spot?

The underlying point is about doing a link-up job. Pandya, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar are all power-hitters who can score big when the situation presents itself. Rahul, too, is adept at it and additionally has the gift of timing that top-order batsmen possess. You only have to look at his three-ball cameo on Sunday, and he wasn’t even batting at number four.

Meticulous planning

It worth pointing out that since January, India’s middle-order has been re-designed to include enough experienced power-hitters, and despite the absence of Rishabh Pant, this present combination works.

At the Oval on Sunday, Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli together put on 72 per cent of India’s runs. They had done their bit, once again, albeit it was clever strategy at play. A batsman was always charged with holding one end together – Rohit and Kohli did this job. The other end, well, that’s where the power hitting came from. Dhawan earlier on, and then Dhoni-Rahul – even so, it is the in-between link-up that mattered most.

Pandya walked in at 4, and survived a golden duck. In hindsight, Alex Carey’s drop cost Australia the game, for the all-rounder thereafter put on a fearsome batting display, hitting four fours and three sixes during his 27-ball stay.

Mere numbers though don’t define his impact. It is seen in the manner he took on the bowlers.

Dhawan had earlier targeted Nathan Coulter-Nile, and now it was Pandya’s turn. He is always key to Australia’s middle-overs bowling, and coming later towards the death too. With Pandya going after him, for the second time in this innings, skipper Aaron Finch had to re-think his bowling options. Just like earlier against Dhawan, Finch then brought out the spinners. Boom, boom – Glenn Maxwell and Adam Zampa were duly dispatched for sixes.

Yes, it was power hitting at its best, but that alone doesn’t define what the 25-year-old can do in such a situation. Today, Pandya is a batsman who is fully aware that he can clear the boundary whenever he wants. But it is not all about power. It is a calculated assault, one that he meticulously prepares for.

Ahead of the tournament, during two of India’s practice session, Pandya had walked into the side nets with R Sridhar. The fielding coach then fed him tennis balls, shot with a tennis racquet at half-pitch distance, all of them waist high. The workout? Pandya built up muscle memory, as he practiced smashing them over midwicket and square leg.

And perhaps the standout moment from his cameo innings against Australia came in the 44th over. First he smashed Pat Cummins straight over long on. The very next ball, with third man up, he guided the ball past him for four. It was in this moment that his mental awareness stood out and reflected why Kohli was happy being a mute spectator.

The Indian skipper later said: “He said, since I was at the other end, he could strike the ball at will (even strike-rate 200). We back him so much because he has game-changing ability and he believes in himself a lot. He’s in a good space right now. I’m really delighted to see him come back so strongly. He’s not taking things too harshly on him. He’s just having fun and respecting the sport, and just playing for the love of it, which is really good to see.”

On Sunday, Pandya took charge of the Indian innings and showed what they missed in New Zealand. And fans back home can breathe easy knowing that the all-rounder has put that television show controversy into the shade, moving on to better things like concentrating on the game.

Is he a better person for it? Who knows, and how does it even matter? His cricketing skills matter, and that incident has spurred him on to a better purpose.

Truth be told. There is a spark about him, now. You can call it the Pandya factor.