On Wednesday evening Hardik Pandya was his normal self. He was prancing and dancing around Wankhede stadium. And why not. It was Pandya's thundering cameo at the death that put Mumbai Indians in a winning position, which he sealed with a three-wicket bowling spell that broke Chennai Super Kings' back.
Pandya's eight-ball 25 was equal to 39 Smart runs, his Smart Strike rate was a whopping 487.50, while his Smart economy was 1.75. The performance allowed Pandya his first Man-of-the-Match award in T20s in 16 matches (including IPL and internationals). Importantly, it gave Pandya a reason to smile. A reason to believe in himself having endured a difficult past seven months.
Pandya aborted the Asia Cup last September after suffering a back injury. That forced him to miss selection for the T20 and Test series in Australia. The selectors did pick him eventually for the fourth Test, but Pandya just carried the drinks. Then on the eve of ODI series in Australia, in January, Pandya, along with friend and team-mate KL Rahul were suspended by the BCCI for their offensive remarks on a television chat show, which were condemned in public as well as the India dressing room.
Although the ban was provisionally lifted on January 24, both players are yet to be cleared. Pandya has been asked by the BCCI ombudsman to be present for an in-person hearing on April 9.
Evidently, then, Pandya was thrilled at having been the catalyst in Mumbai's victory. "It feels pretty good to having helped the team to win and contributed. It is a fantastic feeling," Pandya told Sanjay Manjrekar in the post-match presentation.
Even without the gentle prod from Manjrekar, Pandya was willing to pour out his emotions of the most difficult phase of his career so far. "It has been seven months that I have hardly played games. I've just batted and batted and batted, and touch wood the game is getting improved. I am someone who wants to improve day by day. That is something I was focusing all that time I was out. Touch wood it is helping me. It is a fantastic feeling when you hit the ball like that and make your team win."
During the suspension period Pandya had opted not to come out of his house. After his match-winning role he disclosed partially his feelings during that time. "I was out for an injury and then some other controversy happened. This Man-of-the-Match I really like to dedicate to my family and my friends who were there for me during my toughest time. Because these seven months have not been easy. I was out and then I didn't know what to do."
It also allowed Pandya to carry out a "reality check". And now he has one motive. "That kind of made me feel that I should have a reality check on my life [about] what I am doing and which is helping me. Now my only focus is to play IPL and make sure India wins the World Cup. That is my sole purpose. That's why I am practising the way I am doing right now."
Kieron Pollard, whose late cameo in tandem with Pandya allowed Mumbai to plunder 45 off the final two overs, was modest enough to admit his team-mate had him "covered". "He is phenomenal," Pollard said immediately after the victory. "He is one that goes out and just plays his game. He doesn't think about much because there is a lot of analysis goes around the way you bat and the striking zones and whatever. But he just has a clear mind and he is hitting the ball pretty far. And that's what you get with youthful exuberance."