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Match Analysis

Throwback Thursday provides thrilling peek into Hardik 2.0

His blockbuster all-round show in Southampton is a reminder of what Indian fans had been missing out on

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Hardik Pandya became the first Indian to score a half-century and pick up a four-for in the same T20I  •  Getty Images

Hardik Pandya became the first Indian to score a half-century and pick up a four-for in the same T20I  •  Getty Images

Hardik Pandya's injuries - especially a stress fracture that needed surgery and extensive rehabilitation for the better part of two years, between 2018 and 2020 - led to several question marks over his longevity in the game.
Can he be the Hardik of old? Can he remain injury free? Can he bowl? If yes, can he rediscover his pace and subtle skills that brought him success?
Then at the start of IPL 2022, you wondered how he would warm up to the pressures of captaincy. Early in the season, you wondered if he was putting himself under too much pressure by trying to be Gujarat Titans' everything man in the batting department. He batted at three, then four, finished off innings, held an end up - essentially, he was the jack of all trades.
On Friday, Hardik delivered a blockbuster performance in what was perhaps India's sternest T20I test since that World Cup exit last year. Against an England side that has set the benchmark as far as white-ball cricket goes, Hardik scored his maiden T20I half-century and picked up four wickets, a double no other Indian has achieved, to power India to an emphatic series lead.
"I'm enjoying my cricket right now and that is more important," he said after his match-winning performance in Southampton. "A lot of time goes behind the scenes with my preparation to ensure my body is all right. Because I took a long break [last year], I wanted to make sure my rhythm was all right, and it is.
"That was a conscious decision taken by myself, when I decided that I wanted some time off from the game. When I can't enjoy the game, there's no point of Hardik Pandya playing. For me, it was about the effort and the intensity. When I got that, it felt very satisfying."
Hardik is in a great space currently. His career has scaled new heights. He has captained Titans to IPL glory, realised a boyhood dream of captaining India, and is - in his own words - "enjoying the present without worrying about how much I will play or contribute to the future".
These are words of a man who is confident in the skills he possesses. Skills India have dearly missed, and skills that have lent India the flexibility to play six bowlers, something they missed during the T20 World Cup campaign in the UAE, which ended in a group-stage exit.
"What I will play and what I won't play, only time will tell. The focus right now is wherever I can give 100%, I want to. If I can't give 100%, I will not take someone's place"
Hardik Pandya
At Mumbai Indians, Hardik's role was to maximise the few balls he got towards the end of the innings. His batting positions at Titans brought with them many questions. And he proved he could temper his game to play situations before teeing off. As a leader, you saw him soak in pressure for the youngsters to play freely in the IPL, a philosophy straight out of MS Dhoni's captaincy book. All this stems from a great sense of enjoyment an injury-free Hardik has derived from his game.
His performances have suddenly elicited talks - from the outside, of course - of his potential return to red-ball cricket. Hardik, however, firmly brushed aside such a prospect, for now.
"It depends on what we're playing. Right now, it's the white-ball season, and the World Cup is coming, so we're more focused there," he said. "How much white-ball cricket I play for India, that much better. When Tests come, let's see. But what I will play and what I won't play, only time will tell. The focus right now is wherever I can give 100%, I want to. If I can't give 100%, I will not take someone's place."
On Thursday, he came into bat with India at 89 for 3 in the ninth over. He started briskly; his first scoring shot was a flat-batted rocket past legspinner Matt Parkinson. When he lost Suryakumar Yadav in the 14th, he had to ride a brief slowdown because India hadn't got to Dinesh Karthik's ideal entry point yet.
Hardik recalibrated without affecting momentum. He brought up the half-century off just 30 balls and by the time he was out in the 18th, India were staring at 200. Hardik's, and India's, approach was reminiscent of England's mantra that has brought them much success.
"Credit to Rahul Dravid and the management where those people allow us to express ourselves," he said. "When you have so much clarity from coaches and management, as an individual, you get a big boost. If you play a shot and get out, you don't feel 'oh I've played a poor shot'. Credit to coach, which is important as a player."
With the ball, Hardik pegged England back in the powerplay with the wickets of David Malan and Liam Livingstone in one over. The first ball of his second over brought the wicket of Jason Roy, who was out slashing to deep third. At 33 for 4, England were on the ropes.
All the elements of Hardik the bowler were on display. He was brisk, he was hitting hard lengths - a sign that he was bending his back - and there were subtle changes in pace, and he mixed them up with his usual smarts. In short, he seemed a complete package.
In February, when Hardik wasn't picked for the West Indies series, chairman of selectors Chetan Sharma, in a rare press conference, touched upon how he'd return only if he was "100% match fit". Through the IPL and his performances over the past month, Hardik has done everything in his capacity to prove his fitness, and in the process deliver telling contributions.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo