"What about that, a bit flourish in the way he uses his wrist. Boy! is he in great hitting form this season, Hardik Pandya."
Sanjay Manjrekar is in total awe of Hardik Pandya as he 'Helicopters' one deep into Sachin Tendulkar stand. MS Dhoni, behind the stumps, looks left and right, emotionless. It is full and Hardik goes deep inside the crease to whip it from outside off. It was a stunning shot that elicited purrs.
That shot, in a way, encapsulated Hardik's power-hitting form and confidence with which he is batting in the last few years.
Hardik hammered 25 off 8 balls at the Wankhede on Wednesday to perform the rescue act once again for the third match running this IPL season, and helping him overcome Mumbai's inertia was seasoned veteran, Kieron Pollard.
Flashback to 2015: It's the first ball of the 18th over, Mumbai Indians need 34 from 18 balls. Rohit Sharma charges down the track and looks to go downtown but is done in by slower one from Dwayne Bravo, he miscues it to the long on fielder. A struggling innings of 18 runs off 21 balls comes to an end amidst soaring run rate on a tricky MA Chidambaram pitch and as he trudges back in disappointment, he points towards someone in the dugout and calls him in. He wants Hardik Pandya to come in next, ahead of the experienced Harbhajan Singh.
It is a moment that would prove seminal in Pandya's career. In just his second IPL game, he strides out and performs the great rescue act, along with Ambati Rayudu, with a whirlwind 21 off 8 balls, including three sixes off four balls off Pawan Negi. With 30 required off 2 overs, MI win the match with four balls to spare.
"It's good they (team management) have the faith in me, sending me before Bhajji pa (Harbhajan Singh)," a shy yet excited Pandya would say in the presentation ceremony. "If I know my strengths, I can hit the ball very hard, So ya...It was the most emotions I went through."
That innings would launch him into the limelight. Back then, Hardik was an unknown name in the cricketing world, plucked from obscurity by the MI scouts. Four years down the line, he's taken giant strides in the world of cricket and playing rescue acts for Mumbai and then for the Indian national team in the last four years. At the Chepauk, he informed the world that he could hit the ball very hard and he has showcased it consistently ever since then.
The 8-ball 25 blitz against CSK at Wankhede on Wednesday night rekindled the memories of that knock at the Chepauk four years ago. Yes, he can hit the ball really hard and it seems like the Baroda all-rounder has taken his power-hitting to the next level.
He smashed the third ball he faced, a back of length from Shardul Thakur, deep into the deep mid-wicket stands. Then unfurled that 'Helicopter shot' off Bravo, followed it up with a smashing drive over cover-point for four off a full ball before finishing with a scathing lift over point, off another full ball, for another six that stunned Manjrekar again making him scream, "That's an incredible shot and an incredible end to the innings." It was an exhibition of clean hitting from Pandya. He's been working on unorthodox shots in the nets and all the hard work seems to be paying off.
"Very special," Hardik said of that helicopter shot to IPLT20.com. I have been working on that shot and after playing that shot, I was proud and was expecting that MS would come and say good shot, good shot," he jested.
"But I am quite happy, I was working a lot on those shots and generally people like to bowl at stumps at me and it's a shot which is not so easy but with the bat speed which I have, seen MS hitting so much and he is an inspiration and we try to copy lots of shots which he plays, this is one of the shots which I have copied from him and am quite happy that it came out well."
On a pitch that seemed a little bit slow to everyone's surprise, but also assisted bounce, the Mumbai batsmen found it difficult to get going. They were meandering at 103/3 from 16 overs and at one point it seemed even hobbling to 150 would be a struggle. The set Suryakumar Yadav (59) and Krunal pressed the initial accelerator from the 17th over and then Pandya and Pollard hit the top gear smashing 45 from last two overs to completely change the momentum.
Hardik was all pumped up, his energy and verve were palpable as he celebrated after every shot not only of his but Pollard's as well. And this energy seemed to rub off on the Trinidadian who played a crucial 7-ball 17 cameo after being under the pump for three failures in a row.
"I am impressed the way he is preparing as well," Hardik's elder brother told Star Sports in the innings break. "The way he is batting is not new because I have seen him hitting like this from last so many years. I am really happy for him the way he is batting."
Hardik seems to be making a habit of acing pressure situations. Against RCB, MI slipped from 124/2 to 147/7 but Hardik smashed 14-ball 32 to propel them to 187. Against KXIP, they lost the momentum in the middle overs and then the Baroda all-rounder provided the surge from 127/4 to 176 with a 31-run breezy knock off 19 balls, striding out to bat in the 15th over. He repeated it at the Wankhede against the CSK. He also came back to haunt Chennai with the ball with a disciplined spell of 4-0-20-3, including the wickets of MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja in the 15th over.
The Baroda all-rounder has amassed 83 runs from 39 balls in the death overs (16-20) at an average of 83 and a staggering strike rate of 212.82.
Hardik, in some way, has been covering up for the middle order struggles. While other teams have learned to up the ante in the middle, MI have averaged just 27 in the middle overs (7-15), losing 11 wickets and scoring at 8.35 runs per over.
Against CSK, at the Wankhede, they scored 53/2 in the middle overs at 5.88 runs an over, going from 40/1 to 93/3.
At the death, they have scored at 11.04 runs an over, second best by a team in the IPL so far which underlines the impact of Hardik. However, MI can't depend on him to bail them out every time.
The best solution for the middle-order muddle could be to promote Pandya up the order. He's batted at 6,7,6,6 in the four innings respectively so far and no doubt needs to bat higher given his form and need to accelerate in the middle.
Hardik has endured a tough time in the last few months riding a bumpy ride riddled with injuries and the Koffee with Karan episode controversy for which he's copped heavy criticism. The reality check, in a way, seems to have helped.
"It's been seven months that I've hardly played games," the Baroda all-rounder said in the presentation ceremony. "I've just batted and batted and batted (in the nets) and touchwood the game is getting improved.
"It's a fantastic feeling when you hit the ball like that and make your team win. I was out with injury and then some other controversy (Koffee with Karan episode) happened. I want to dedicate this Man of the Match to my family and friends, who stood with me in the toughest times. Because these seven months have not been easy, I was out, I didn't know what to do, that kind of made me feel that I should have a reality check on my life (on) what I am doing which is helping me. Now my only focus is to play IPL and make sure India wins the World Cup, that's why I am practising the way I am and touch wood everything is coming off," he said in the presentation ceremony.
Mumbai have been perennial slow starters in the IPL, depending on last-minute resurgences to scrap through. Last season, they lost five out of their first six games and failed to qualify for the playoffs. After two losses from three games this season, they desperately needed this win and some inspiration. Hardik Pandya put his hand up, played the protagonist to suck the air out of rampant CSK and breath some life into Mumbai at the Wankhede.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari