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The evolution of Hardik Pandya

Hardik Pandya hit three successive sixes in the last over of India's innings Getty Images

Watch again the three consecutive sixes Hardik Pandya hit off Imad Wasim on Sunday. With those three bold strokes, Pandya sent out a message. Yuvraj Singh had already done a number on Pakistan, and Pandya delivered the knockout, draining whatever little strength remained in those wobbly legs.

Watch those sixes for how still Pandya's head remained: head down when he played the shot; balance, shape and body position still even after he played them. These are the characteristics of a good batsman. Add to them a positive frame of mind, and a player can do wonders. This is what makes Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Joe Root and Kane Williamson beautiful batsmen.

Pandya is by no means in that league. But in the 18 months since he started playing for India, he has become a fixture. With an average bowling speed of 135kph and an ability to seam and swing the ball, both new and old, he provides Kohli the option of a the third or fourth fast bowler. And with his power-hitting, Pandya gives heft to the lower middle order, which about a year ago was a major concern for India, with MS Dhoni overburdened and brittle.

Sunday once again showed the confidence India have in Pandya. As Yuvraj lingered, waiting for the third umpire to make up his mind on the review asked for by Pakistan after their lbw shout was turned down, the Indian fans turned their attention to the batsman walking out for the last three overs of the innings. It is usually Dhoni who bolts out of the Indian dressing room in such situations to perform the finishing rites, but here it was Pandya. Kohli said later both he and coach Anil Kumble preferred Pandya to bat at that stage.

Sending Pandya ahead of Dhoni was a signal that the finisher's baton had now been passed to him. It was no slight against Dhoni, who remains an integral part of India's middle order. Dhoni himself has said he would prefer batting up the order and mentoring youngsters to do the high-pressure job that he has done for a decade.

"He has worked on his head position a lot and now he has the right balance when he plays a shot. He has that capacity of hitting the ball, picking the line very quickly" Kiran More, former India wicketkeeper

Besides, Pandya's biggest strength as a batsman is how quickly he can hit top gear. Unlike most Indian batsmen, who still subscribe to the conventional method of laying a platform before stepping on the accelerator, he can hit out from the start.

Kohli, who was struggling for fluency against Pakistan, found it "unbelievable" that Pandya could arrive at the crease and take off like that. "They [the Indian think tank] asked whether we should send Hardik ahead of MS," Kohli said. "And everyone agreed, because he just can strike the ball from ball one and has unbelievable ability."

His recent numbers justify the growing confidence in Pandya as the man for the death overs. This IPL, in overs 16 to 20, Pandya scored 176 runs off 99 balls for Mumbai Indians - second only to Manoj Tiwary's 187 off 118 for Rising Pune Supergiant. Pandya's death-overs strike rate - 177.77 - was second only Delhi Daredevils' Chris Morris (206.89) among batsmen who faced a minimum of 50 balls.

Crucially, Pandya's survival rate in those death overs is also high; it's not six and out for him. He was dismissed only four times during the death this IPL (average 44 runs per dismissal), which indicates an ability to score quickly while taking relatively few risks. Compare that to Dhoni, who scored 168 runs off 107 balls (strike rate 157) and was dismissed eight times (average 21), playing for Pune.

In his eight ODIs also, Pandya has shown this ability to settle quickly and then sustain the momentum till the end. He has scored 125 off 88 balls in the death overs (40 to 50), and has been dismissed just twice (strike rate 142.04, average 62.50).

Pandya's promise gives Kohli the confidence that India have a lower middle order that can both build on good starts and provide stability in case of a top-order collapse. He said as much on the eve of the Champions Trophy. "The one thing we needed to strengthen was our lower-middle-order contribution," Kohli said. "Too much burden was coming on MS in the last couple of years. He was not able to express himself. There were not enough guys showing composure to finish off games with him. But having had Kedar [Jadhav] and Hardik do so well in that particular phase of the innings, that has really strengthened our squad. And Hardik coming in provides that beautiful balance."

Pandya first emerged for Baroda in domestic cricket, but he was polished by some of the best cricketing brains at Mumbai Indians. Ricky Ponting, Mahela Jayawardene, Robin Singh, Kiran More, members of Mumbai's coaching staff, and Sachin Tendulkar, as the team's mentor, have all played a role in developing Pandya's mindset.

Over the last two years he has shown a willingness to work hard and keep learning. His attitude has impressed the likes of Rahul Dravid, the India A coach.

A crucial aspect that Pandya has focused on in the last year has been fitness. He has added muscle to his slender frame and adopted a routine that involves good sleeping times, eating habits, and absorbing advice from seniors in the Indian team.

More, the former India wicketkeeper who has looked over Pandya from the day he arrived at his academy as a teenager, has witnessed the transformation up close. He thinks a big reason Pandya has been successful with the bat is that he has worked on his trigger movements. "He has worked on his head position a lot and now he has the right balance when he plays a shot," More said. "He has that capacity of hitting the ball, picking the line very quickly. IPL has helped him a lot; there, most times he comes come in during tight situations where big sixes are needed."

Pandya has also spoken to Rohit Sharma, Kohli, Yuvraj and Dhoni about his timing. "He is watching the ball better and his head is down when he is hitting the ball now, like a golfer," More said.

"It is very hard to find a guy who can almost touch 140kmph and who strikes the way he strikes the ball and can bat through the innings as well." India captain Virat Kohli

According to his older brother Krunal, Pandya also has greater clarity of thought now. "He has become more mentally strong," Krunal said. "Assessing situations is very important, and he is working on that."

On his first visit to England, Pandya will have seen that the vagaries of the English weather can make batting a task. In his first innings here, in India's second warm-up match, against Bangladesh, he walked in in grey, overcast conditions. He had a word with Dhoni, who told him to take his time and then open up. He made an unbeaten 80 off 54 balls.

During the home ODI series against England, Pandya said Dhoni gave him a valuable tip on finishing matches. "I asked him how to finish games. He said that you need to make sure you don't see the scoreboard. You need to make sure you see the situation and play accordingly.

"That way, even I have noticed, you don't have pressure on yourself, because you want the team to win, that's the motive. So you don't have your own personal [motive] that you have to do something special or that pressure is not on you. You just focus on what you can do for the team and play according to the situation. So that was a big tip which he gave me and which eventually helped me."

Kohli, meanwhile, is sure India have found a rare asset in Pandya. "It is very hard to find a guy who can almost touch 140kph and who strikes the way he strikes the ball and can bat through the innings as well," he said. "It is very hard to find people with that kind of ability, and once you have that kind of player, you need to make sure that he is always committed, always motivated for the team. That comes naturally to Hardik - you don't need to motivate him in any other way."

The challenge now is whether Pandya can evolve as oppositions become more familiar with him. Keep his head down. Carry his belief forward. Be there at the 2019 World Cup in England, a hard-to-replace asset for Kohli's India.