There is an irresistible charm to Hardik Pandya. There is spunk, swagger and attitude. There is fire in the belly and there is raw passion.
Before the start of India’s quest to defend their Champions Trophy title, there was talk about whether Hardik would find a place in the starting eleven. Yes, English conditions have traditionally been conducive to pace bowling and Hardik offered a handy option with his seam and swing, but the Indian pace attack, even without Hardik, was one of the best in this tournament. Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah together would have evoked a sense of foreboding from the opposition.
Was there a place for Hardik in the side? Clearly, India could not play their four frontline pacers together, as that would have made the batting a bit light. But could they be bold enough to leave out one among Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja, given the form that the spin twins have been for India lately? Were three pacers in the eleven not good enough? Was there a need to play Hardik as the fourth pacer?
What would have worked in favour of Hardik was his batting. He had not played too many ODIs for India before the Champions Trophy, but was in reasonable form with the bat in the series against England earlier this year, with a 43-ball 56 at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata standing out.
Hardik’s reputation preceded him though. He was known to be capable of hitting the ball a fair distance, which was borne out by his exploits in the Indian Premier League (IPL). On his debut innings against Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2015, he hit the second ball he faced for a six, but is best known for his eight-ball 21 that propelled Mumbai Indians to victory against Chennai Super Kings when they needed as many as 30 runs from the last two overs in the same year.
He started the IPL with an absolute bang this year, clobbering a hapless Ashok Dinda for 6, 6, 6, 4, 6 in the last over against Rising Pune Supergiant. In the next match, he played another blinder, against Kolkata Knight Riders, helping Mumbai Indians pull off a heist of sorts at the Wankhede.
Coming at the fall of the talismanic Kieron Pollard’s wicket in the 17th over, and with Mumbai still a long way away from the 179-run target, Hardik was not someone to be cowed down. What followed was another cameo of tremendous value. Twenty-nine off 11 balls with three fours and two sixes, and Hardik ensured that Mumbai aced the tough chase.
What comes across from all this is Hardik’s value as a finisher, a cushion at the middle and lower middle order who can get the team quick runs to boost a total, or get them over the line. And it is of great significance in the Indian team as the runs that he gets free up Mahendra Singh Dhoni to maybe come up the order and play his natural game. Dhoni has had to put it inside the cupboard, in the absence of the player who could rally the lower order and the tail around him and still, let’s say score 80 runs off the last 10 overs. But in Hardik, there's a player who fits the bill to the T.
"Too much burden was coming on MS in the last couple of years. He was not able to express himself. There were not enough guys showing composure to finish off games with him. But having had Kedar (Jadhav) and Hardik do so well in that particular phase of the innings, that has really strengthened our squad. And Hardik coming in provides that beautiful balance," skipper Virat Kohli had said.
So let’s revisit the question that we had started with. Should there be a place for Hardik in the starting eleven? Kohli and coach Anil Kumble, despite their supposed rift, apparently concurred that Hardik should have a place. So in walked Hardik in one of the biggest matches of his fledgling ODI career — an India versus Pakistan clash in one of the most prestigious tournaments, the Champions Trophy. Not only that, he walked in ahead of Dhoni in the penultimate over, charged with the task of getting as many runs as possible.
"They (the Indian management) asked whether we should send Hardik ahead of MS," Kohli said. "And everyone agreed, because he just can strike the ball from ball one and has unbelievable ability."
Hardik got stuck into left-arm orthodox bowler Imad Wasim, who was bowling the last over, clattering him for three sixes in a row.
“I saw the field. I knew he was going to bowl wide to me. If you see, I was standing outside off stump…” Hardik said of his strategy during that assault.
His bowling too was not bad in that match, with him going for 5.38 runs in his eight overs, but he got the wickets of rival captain Sarfraz Ahmed and Imad Wasim.
Hardik though didn’t start well after landing in England. The first warm-up match, against New Zealand saw him leaking 49 runs off his six overs on a day when the Kiwis were bowled out for a paltry 189.
His batting blossomed against Bangladesh and 80 runs off 54 balls would have been as good a warm up as it could be. It was a good day for him in office as he got a wicket too for two runs in the overs that he bowled.
His bowling fell flat a bit against Sri Lanka in the group stage of the tournament, as did that of most of his teammates as the Lankans pulled off a 300-plus chase. Hardik went for over seven runs per over. His figures improved in the next match against South Africa, and 1/52 in 10 overs was reasonably useful, though not extraordinary.
Against Bangladesh, though, this time in the semi-final of the showpiece event, he was taken for runs. Hardik went for as many as 34 runs in his four overs and was denied the wicket of Tamim Iqbal due to his own blunder (he had the Bangladeshi opener bowled off a no ball), and that of Mahmudullah due to the blunder of Ashwin, who dropped a catch in the deep.
Ten overs for 53 and a wicket against Pakistan in the final would tell you that he just about did his job with the ball. But what stood out in his overall contribution in the final is the innings he played.
By the time Hardik came in to bat at No 7, in the 14th over, the match was already half lost for India. They were reeling at 54/5 and the best one could hope for was avoiding a humiliation to the arch-rivals. Or could Hardik still take his team to victory? It would have been surreal had it happened.
Hardik tried his best, spanking the Pakistan bowlers for 76 off 43 balls, hitting four fours and six sixes in the process. What struck the eye during this innings as also in the earlier match against Pakistan was his good, clean hitting, with the follow through with the bat making a lovely arc while his head was perfectly still. Those were right out of the textbook and told you that Hardik is no accidental hitter.
It is his bowling, though, that one feels need to perk up. He bowls at a speed of 135-140 kmph, but often errs in length, dropping the ball a bit too short. He needs also to develop a few more variations. Cutters, knuckle balls, scrambled seam deliveries would be quite useful to him, which invariably puts a lid on the scoring in the middle stages of a game, when Hardik usually bowls.
Hardik needs to upgrade his bowling if he is to graduate from a handy to an effective fifth bowler. In all the ODIs he had played till the Champions Trophy, Hardik had mostly been given five to seven overs, while in the IPL this year too, he had been used for only 26 overs in 17 matches.
Hardik has the full support of captain Kohli though. "He's a real asset to Indian cricket. It is very hard to find a guy who can almost touch 140kph and who strikes the way he strikes the ball and can bat through the innings as well," he said.
"It is very hard to find people with that kind of ability, and once you have that kind of player, you need to make sure that he is always committed, always motivated for the team. That comes naturally to Hardik — you don't need to motivate him in any other way,” felt the Indian captain. “If he gets the support that a player like him needs, he can go down as one of the most accomplished players Indian cricket has had."
Hardik has proved with his performances in the Champions Trophy that he is here to stay and become a vital cog in the wheel for India in limited overs. But unless he cranks up his bowling and brings in some more variations, he may fall short of being the champion all-rounder his captain envisages him to be.