International debuts provide a sense of excitement and pride but the sense of the occasion can sometimes make you extremely nervy or bring an adrenaline rush. Ten months ago, in January, Hardik Pandya achieved a dubious distinction on his debut in Adelaide against Australia. He bowled the most expensive first over by a debutant in T20Is. The over went on and on and on, it was an over longer than a Sunday afternoon visit to an elderly relative. Hardik is a confident boy but the nerves were floating and it was palpable. He started with three wides down the leg side to Steven Smith. He was also hit for a six and a four in that over which stretched to 11 balls with five wides. He ended up conceding 19. MS Dhoni took him off the attack straightaway. He registered figures of 3-0-37-2.
Fast forward to October, Hardik bowls one of the most impressive first overs one can witness from a debutant, against New Zealand in Dharamsala. And from then on, there was no looking back. This was a different Hardik that was on show.
On a pitch that always has something in it for the seamers, MS Dhoni decided to hand the new ball to Hardik to open the bowling. And the 22-year-old didn't disappoint. He drew an outside edge off Martin Guptill off just the second ball but it flew wide of the slip cordon for a streaky four. The next ball is in the corridor of uncertainty which catches Guptill in two minds whether to drive or leave. He ends up swaying away too late and the bottom edge flies wide of the slips again for a four. The third one is even better, it comes in with an angle and leaves Guptill at the last moment. A peach and beaten. Three good deliveries had already built the pressure.
Hardik, however errs off the next ball and gets thumped through point for four. Dhoni responds by bringing in an extra slip. Hardik regains his composure and bowls one on length just outside off, it zips and jags away. Guptill looks to push but is done in by the pace and movement. He ends up edging it to the second slip. Hardik has his man. He wheels away in celebration of his maiden ODI wicket. The over sets the tone.
Hardik started off as a batsman who could bowl part-time leg spin in his early days. But after a point, he quit leg spin and started bowling fast in the nets. When the other sessions would get over he would hit the nets and try and bowl fast. However, the discovery of Hardik the bowler came back in 2013 via a club game. There was a green top prepared for a match in which his club was playing. The team didn't have enough good pacers so the management decided to try with Hardik. What next? Hardik ended up scalping eight wickets.
"He was bowling so fast, that the slips and wicketkeeper had to be placed 30 yards behind the stumps," Hardik's elder brother Krunal Pandya told Firstpost last year.
This is when he caught the eye of then Baroda Ranji coach Sanath Kumar and the journey of Hardik the all-rounder began from then on.
Hardik had endured a tough time over the last few months. After a poor IPL, he was dropped for the Zimbabwe tour. His batting and bowling form had both suffered a dip. He was struggling to get his lengths right and was bowling too short. He had lost a bit of pace too which gave the batsmen enough time to pull. However, watching him bowl in Dharamsala felt like a different Hardik Pandya had turned up for the match. He was hitting the right lengths and bowling in the corridor of uncertainty - that along with a hint of swing and seam movement made it difficult for the Kiwis. He was getting the ball to zip off the surface at considerable pace right in the mid 140s.
"I was focusing to bowl a good quarter length which would be useful off the wicket because if we were going too full, it was not doing anything but it was doing something from the length. I wasn't looking to bowl fast, just wanted to bowl with rhythm," Hardik said in the presentation ceremony.
Dhoni too suggested that the area between the good length and full length was the ideal one to hit on this surface.
"We had no clue that the wicket will help the fast bowlers so much. I felt what was good was the length. You don't have to bowl really up, it was ahead of the good length mark and just short of the full deliveries. That length comes quite naturally to Hardik so he exploited it the most," Dhoni said in the presentation ceremony.
Umesh Yadav ably supported him from the other end with, surprisingly unerring accuracy, removing Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson who succumbed to the pressure. Umesh and Hardik made good use of the pace and bounce of the wicket to mount pressure on the batsmen. Dhoni bowled the duo unchanged for nine overs before bringing on Bumrah who made sure that the stranglehold is maintained.
All this while, Pandya was bowling from the River end but after just one over of change, Dhoni brought Hardik back, this time from the College end. He struck straightaway off the fourth delivery as Anderson hit one uppishly to mid off and Umesh pulled off a brilliant catch. The poor shot was, again, as a result of the pressure created. Relentless that he is on the field, Hardik was rushing through his overs. The ball seemed to be stopping/holding a bit on length areas of the batsmen from the college end and Luke Ronchi was undone by that as he chipped one straight to mid on in Hardik's next over.
Hardik kept on probing outside off, teasing the batsmen which was the hallmark of his bowling throughout the innings. The pacers beat the bat 31 times in the first 15 overs while the Kiwis left alone 23 balls in the same period. Such was the accuracy. Off this, Hardik beat the bat 18 times and 12 of his balls were left alone.
Credit must be given to Dhoni who trusted Hardik to do the job with the new ball. He explained the strategy behind opening the bowling with Hardik.
"Our thinking was to use him as one of the three seamers and to give him a chance to exploit the new ball, the reason being we all felt he's got movement," Dhoni said in post-match presentation. "He can swing the ball even on the wickets where some of the other bowlers don't get that kind of swing. He's somebody who can get the purchase off the wicket so we wanted to give him a go with the new ball. Also Bumrah is very good in the middle overs where he can give me wickets and also at the death. So if I can save his overs, I can use him at any point of time," he added.
Hardik put in hard yards following the form slump and that seems to be paying off but most importantly, he realised that he needed to work on his bowling.
“After the IPL, I was out for two months. I worked hard on my game and that helped me. I got to know about my game and the areas I needed to improve. I wanted to work on my bowling and wanted to be more consistent at it and also get better at batting,” Hardik had told BCCI.tv before the match.
Initially when Hardik started off fast bowling, he used to get injured a lot. Almost every two months. He has worked on his fitness. He increased his strength which had an impact on the pace and somewhere down the line, the 'A' tour to Australia helped him.
The Champions Trophy will be held in England where the pacers might play a crucial role and this performance from Hardik has provided India a shot in the arm.
"I don't see any reason as to if he keeps performing the way he did in this game why he can't be our first pick from the three fast bowlers," Dhoni said in the post-match conference.
Hardik received his ODI cap from one of the greatest all-rounders in history of the game - Kapil Dev and incidentally it was the same day Kapil made his debut for India 38 years ago. A man of the match on a special day made it a perfect debut for the Baroda man. In Dharamsala, India might have witnessed the emergence of Hardik Pandya the bowler.