Come the World Cup in June, there will be a few players who'll give coaches and analysts sleepless nights. Hours will be spent planning against them, analysing their every swing of the bat and crunch of the ball. Sheets of paper will be printed and handed to the captain, hoping that some flaw, some weakness, will be exposed. Because these are players who can change the nature of the contest if they spend more than a dozen balls at the crease; nothing is more important than getting them early.
Until now, the likes of Andre Russell, Virat Kohli, Glenn Maxwell commanded this kind of fearsome wariness. Now add another name to that list: Hardik Pandya.
There came a point in Sunday night’s game where reality seemed to fade into incredulity. Where live play seemed to blend into highlights. Even the commentators accidentally called a replay of a Hardik six as live, so predictable had his onslaught become.
It should not be so. The inherent risks of T20 batting demand correction; Hardik defied the stats. According to CricViz, at one point he had attacked 80 percent of his deliveries. Such a high number usually comes with a low control rating. Instead, Pandya played just 8 percent false shots.
On any other day, an innings of 91 off 34 balls, with nine sixes and six fours, containing the fastest fifty in this IPL, should have ended on the winning side. At one point, it seemed that Hardik would threaten the record for the fastest IPL hundred as well. But he was up against a monolithic total, built by four Kolkata Knight Riders batsmen, the slowest of whom had a strike rate of 168.88. That included a 40-ball 80 not out from Andre Russell, who was promoted to No 3.
What’s changed? In 2018, Hardik had a strike rate of 133.33 over more than 250 runs, healthy returns for an all-rounder who bats low. He hit 11 sixes in 13 games that season. This year, he smashed those numbers; he has batted at a strike rate of close to 200 for his 355 runs, and has already hit 27 sixes in 12 games.
After Sunday night’s blockbuster game, Pandya spoke about how focussing on holding his shape was critical to his big hitting. And perhaps his time on the sidelines has enabled that. After an injury in the Asia Cup last September, Pandya played no international cricket until February, after missing the away series against Australia due to suspension for inappropriate comments on Koffee with Karan. Then he missed the home series against Australia with a stiff back.
Two back injuries, and a rap on the knuckles meant he came into the IPL undercooked and under pressure. “I was coming after a long break, so I knew I had to do well,” he said in a post-match interview early in the season. “The first game, I didn’t do well, I kind of questioned myself.” But two back injuries also meant that he spent a lot of in the NCA. Under the guidance of the physios and trainers, he would have got the space to take his core strength - critical in the recovery of back injuries - to another level, something the endless grind of international cricket does not allow you to do. Necessity breeds reinvention. That work now seems to be paying off, helping him hold his shape while hitting big shots.
Russell expects Bumrah, Malinga
One of the advantages Andre Russell gained by batting higher in the order is that he got a look at the plans that the Mumbai Indians bowlers were throwing at him. Which meant that if he survived the initial stratagem, he came back with his own plans after.
Hardik showed Mumbai’s hand by bowling wide yorkers, including three wides, early in Russell’s innings. It seemed to work, with the over going for only four runs, none of them scored by Russell. But despite some clever attacks using bouncers, Russell survived till the death overs, where KKR took 48 off Bumrah and Malinga’s three overs.
Expecting the wide balls, Russell hit a couple of outrageous shots, among those a one-footed slap for six over cover, and a sumptuous drive between cover and long off for four, to give KKR the highest total of the season.
It could be a concern going into the knockouts for Mumbai. They have made a habit of conserving Bumrah and Malinga for the death, quite naturally with the two being among the best in the world. But the team needs to guard against being predictable, which is an aspect that has plagued the KKR bowling unit this season.