Public memory may be short, so here’s a recap of the India-Pakistan match, not Sunday’s but the Asia Cup opener in August. That was the game. Hardik Pandya used the short ball well on a pitch that helped bounce to get three wickets before hitting a 17-ball 33 in a five-wicket win. Of the three wickets, two were matched by Mohammed Rizwan and Iftikhar Ahmed, Pakistan’s top two scorers. To give some context to Pandya’s innings, he was on 18 out of 10 after 18 overs, while India needed 21 off 12 balls. He hit three limits – here also from Haris Rauf – in the 19th before beating Mohammad Nawaz again for a massive six to seal the win. Pandya failed in the second match against Pakistan and came out for nil before going 44 in four in a heavy five wicket defeat.
And then, this Sunday, Pandya was once again part of a 113-run partnership with Virat Kohli that revived India’s pursuit from what appeared to be a point of no return. Some people have a nose for the occasion. Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli – the list is not too long. But is Pandya close by? If you look at the last few months that Pandya has had, the victories he has orchestrated, that too comes back from a situation where his status as an all rounder was deeply scrutinized, this certainly feels like a redemptive journey that ticks all the boxes .
First of all, let’s not forget that this is a man who has won all five IPL finals he has played, once captaining Gujarat Titans. The latter was arguably his most difficult assignment as Pandya not only had to lead, but volunteered to be the middle-order anchor and lead tough chases. However, in ICC events, Pandya has failed to win India over the line. However, the effort was there for all to see. It was his final against Bangladesh that took India to the semi-finals of the 2016 T20 World Cup. Next year, in the final of the Champions Trophy, he sheltered Pakistan, hitting 76 from 43 balls, but failed to avoid a huge defeat. In the 2019 World Cup semi-final, Pandya again tried to revive the innings with Rishabh Pant after India lost three early wickets, but New Zealand went on to win.
So it’s not hard to guess what’s on the ‘to-do’ list of a man who had just won his first IPL as captain in his first season. “Definitely to win the World Cup for India, come what may,” Hardik had said. “I’m going to give everything I have.”
Giving everything to try and win the World Cup means different things to different people. For Pandya, it started with a role reversal in IPL – of taking on more responsibility – from the time he was used more as a shotgun. It explains why his IPL stroke rate has dropped from nearly 179 in 2020 to 131 this season. He hasn’t changed much in T20Is, except he scores more now. This year was the most productive year in Pandya’s career, apart from having his highest score to date: 71* against Australia in Mohali last month. In just six months, Pandya’s batter has matured beyond expectations.
Among the Mumbai Indians, Pandya’s role was limited by his brevity, as he could only get about 10-15 balls. But the moment Pandya decided to play longer innings by promoting himself to Gujarat Titans, his reach as an influencer increased. You saw the same version in the Asian Cup, and then here where he showed impeccable judgment in choosing who to attack and who to defend against. This version of Pandya can be calculating, taking measured risks and choosing to explode whenever he sees fit. Had it not been for Kohli on Sunday, this year has given enough confidence that Pandya would certainly have come to the rescue.
But before that, Pandya was willing to make sure Kohli stayed until the last ball. “I felt a lot of pressure in our room, I could feel it,” Pandya said in an interview with bcci.tv after the game. “But for me, I don’t know, I was very numb today. Even when I came down on the floor, I was very happy and I spoke to Rahul (Dravid) sir at first, I wouldn’t say he was tense, but he told me ‘you’ve done many things’, and ‘be calm’ and all that.
“I had to tell him, ‘Sir, please understand I’m happy to be here. Ten months ago I was working in my space and I had no idea and this is where I wanted to be no matter what happens. I’m just happy to be here, playing with the best cricketers in the world, and they’re my brothers,” before turning to Kohli and saying, “I would have taken a bullet for you at the time, but I’d have not let go. from. My goal was simple, whatever I can do to make your life easier, I will do it. You’ve done it so many times and no one is better at handling pressure than you.”
When a player starts treating the game this way, you realize that he doesn’t need to be motivated. He just needs to be left alone, at work, in his zone.