The Indian middle-order's effort in the final one-day international against New Zealand in Wellington on Sunday, with Ambati Rayudu and Hardik Pandya taking centerstage, will soothe some nerves that sprouted in the wake of the disaster in Hamilton earlier in the week when India was bowled out for its lowest total since 2010.
Of course, one swallow does not make a summer. Yet, Sunday’s win was largely secured on the back of the lower-order batting which turned the innings on its head after India lost four wickets with just 18 runs on the board. And with the bowlers completing the conquest with characteristic efficiency, Hardik Pandya can look back at the three games and afford a smile to himself.
Rayudu’s holding effort, Vijay Shankar’s sensible approach saved the sinking ship for India. Later in the day, Mohammed Shami’s twin strikes early set New Zealand’s chase back considerably while Yuzvendra Chahal’s three wickets were proof of his growing stature, even when cast in the role of the sole specialist spinner. Yet, it was Hardik Pandya’s batting that was the most impactful on Sunday.
His presence in the lower middle-order will take some pressure off those batting ahead of him. If they can ensure that he walks in to bat in the slog overs, they would be encouraging him to play the range of strokes that he is capable of. Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav helped a resolute Ambati Rayudu repair the damage and offer Hardik Pandya a platform to launch an assault from.
The team raced from 190/6 to 252/10 in the span of 39 deliveries. In this period, all of India’s seven boundary hits – five sixes and two fours – came from Hardik Pandya’s bat. The 25-year-old Baroda batsman was quite the dynamite at the crease and delivered a series of blows that would have infused great confidence in the Indian squad and created doubts in the Black Caps’ minds during supper.
Come to think of it, Hardik Pandya has played 45 one-day internationals since making his debut in October 2016. And he has but four half-centuries in his 29 innings so far. An average of below 30 may not really give much to crow about, but he provides the team a handy option and some hope to embrace.
His knock in the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Sunday fired such thoughts again and would have warmed the cockles of the team management’s hearts. It could not have come at a more apt time, not just from the perspective of the match itself but also when viewed against the fact that he had not crossed 30 in his last 12 innings spanning nearly 20 games.
Truth to tell, it has been a while since he played an explosive innings. And for that reason alone, his coming good under immense pressure augurs well for India in the games ahead. It is unfair to compare him with any cricketer, past or contemporary, but Hardik Pandya has proven in the three games in New Zealand that he will be a first-choice selection in the XI for some time to come.
Hardik Pandya’s venture completed the batting jailbreak for India on Sunday, escaping from a miserable 18/4. It should stoke his self-confidence as much as it should inspire the middle-order to at least raise a defensive shield and prevent a collapse in case the top three fail collectively on a given day. That will give Hardik Pandya the chance to play a breezy innings.
As he walked in to bat, you could see that he relished the opportunity to express himself as freely as possible. The three sixes in-a-row that he hit against wrist-spinner Todd Astle drew the fans watching the game to the edge of their seats, licking their fingers in anticipation of more fireworks. He did not disappoint, pulling Trent Boult and flicking Jimmy Neesham for more sixes.
It needed a brilliant catch by Boult off his leading edge to end his innings, but inside half an hour, he had ensured that the determined efforts of Rayudu and Vijay Shankar would not go waste. It left the Indian fans wanting more. They wished he played through the one remaining over as well and serve them more entertainment.
Despite batting coach Sanjay Bangar’s assertion that the middle-order delivered more often than not, there has been a worrisome trend of these batsmen buckling under pressure. Hardik Pandya’s refusal to acknowledge the impact of, if not the presence of, pressure on Sunday was one of the best acquisitions for India in Wellington.
There are pointers that the team has the batting arsenal that will be feared in the ICC Cricket World Cup in England and Wales later this year. It just needs to hit the ground running, back one another up just as they did in Wellington on Sunday rather than shockingly collapse in a heap like they did in Hamilton a couple of days back.
Viewed against that landscape, Hardik Pandya’s blitz acquires great importance. It was a sound display of his potential and his ability to make rapier thrust in the minds of the opposition just when it would have started believing that it would chase a smaller target than it eventually would. The team will wish for more such cameos from him should he need to bat at all.