The reincarnation of Hardik Pandya

A fully fit Hardik Pandya in peak form is a thrilling sight in contemporary cricket

Hardik Pandya is back in top form in One-day Internationals and Twenty20

Successful people turn setbacks into opportunities. They seize the moment and stride forward with scarcely a look back. When Mumbai Indians released Hardik Pandya from their Indian Premier League (IPL) squad, and Gujarat Titans not only picked him but also appointed him captain, it was just the chance that he would have wanted, and he made the most of it.

Having struggled long with injuries, Hardik worked hard and was ready for the challenge of IPL 2022, fit and strong. The rest is history. Gujarat Titans topped the table, winning 10 of their 14 league matches before their triumph in Qualifier 1, finally going on to wrest the title. He was player-of-the-match in the final with his tournament-best bowling figures of three for 17 in 4 overs, and 34 with the bat in 30 deliveries. Hardik Pandya once again showed that he is one for the big occasion.

He had the highest aggregate for the Titans with 487 runs in 15 innings at an average of 44.27, a strike-rate of 131.26, 9 fifties and a top score of 87 not out. Still not bowling in all the matches, he picked up 8 wickets in 10 innings at an average of 27.75, and the third-best economy-rate for the Titans at 7.27 runs an over.

But what caught the eye was his captaincy, reflecting his sunny disposition and the deep thought that he gives to the game. He invariably seemed to come up with the right answers in any given situation. It was clear that Hardik was quick on the uptake and reading the game well. He was rewarded with the India captaincy for the two Twenty20 Internationals in Ireland, which India won.

In between, Hardik played some belligerent knocks, and bowled a few overs, when South Africa visited the Indian shores for T20Is, with the series tied 2-2.

Hardik Pandya had superb T20 and ODI series in England

A superb display in the first T20I against England won Hardik the player-of-the-match award as India triumphed by 50 runs. He top-scored with 51 off 33 deliveries, and grabbed four wickets for 33 runs in his 4 overs, his career-best figures. India wrapped up the series by winning the second match. He chipped in with bat and ball as well as in the field. England got a consolation win in the third face-off, with Hardik being rested.

India trounced England by 10 wickets in the first One-day International. There was not much for Hardik to do except bowl 4 overs for 22 runs. There was retribution for England in the second game as they won by 100 runs. Hardik bowled 6 overs, taking two for 28, and was joint top-scorer with 29 as India’s challenge petered out on the bouncy Lord’s track.

It was in the decider that Hardik once again rose to the occasion. As England re-built after a shaky start, he rocked the middle-order with hostile short-pitched bowling. His four for 24 off 7 overs was his best in ODIs. England were bowled out for 259.

Then, when the match seemed to be slipping away at 72 for four after 16.2 overs, Hardik re-built the innings with Rishabh Pant. His sublime strokeplay, with timing and placement being the hallmark, put even Pant in the shade. Hardik hit up 71 off 55 deliveries in the 133-run stand that spanned 19.3 overs. Later, Pant’s pyrotechnics carried India to a comfortable five-wicket win with 7.5 overs to spare. Hardik was named player-of-the series.

Besides Shane Watson, Hardik became the only other player to hit a half-century and bag a four-wicket haul in the same match in ODIs as well as T20Is.

Regaining peak fitness and bowling regularly are the most heartening features of Pandya’s comeback

The most heartening feature of Hardik Pandya’s reincarnation is that he has regained his fitness and is bowling regularly, with his speeds exceeding 140 kmph at times. He says he is bowling smartly, within his limitations, playing the conditions, at times pitching it short as he did in the third ODI against England, at other times pitching it up at lower speeds.

Now approaching 29 years of age, one hopes that Hardik is close to the peak of his powers. His Test career has so far spanned just a little over 13 months in 2017 and 2018, before injury put him out of action. In that time he played 11 Tests, scoring 532 runs at an average of 31.29, with a highest of 108 and with 4 fifties, and bagged 17 wickets at 31.05 apiece and a best of five for 28. People were quick to hail him as the next Kapil Dev.

In the Nottingham Test in 2018, Hardik, in an innings each, picked up a five-wicket haul (five for 28) and scored a half-century (52 not out), playing a big hand in India’s huge win by 203 runs.

Having re-established himself in the limited-overs formats, Hardik must be eyeing a Test comeback. His role would probably be more akin to that of Ben Stokes, as a hard-hitting batsman and support seamer often banging in the ball hard. He is, of course, a brilliant fielder, and with two other top-class multi-skilled players in the form of Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, should take India to the top once more.

Fitness would, naturally, be the key. Kapil Dev was a superb athlete and super fit. He never missed a match through injury. Ironically, as we speak, Ben Stokes has retired from ODIs to focus on Tests. Will Hardik Pandya, having regained top form in ODIs and T20s, now be back to regale in Test matches as well? That would be exciting for Indian fans and world cricket alike.

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