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Feature

Hardik answers questions with one of the most influential all-round displays in an IPL final

Questions around his fitness, his bowling, his captaincy, his new No. 4 spot, have all been answered, and how!

It might feel like a long time ago, but try and cast your mind back to the start of IPL 2022, and to the general sentiment around Hardik Pandya.
You'll recall the question marks over his fitness - specifically his ability to contribute with the ball - which had led to a double demotion in the BCCI's contracts list, and to his non-selection for India's last six ODIs and last nine T20Is.
He had been appointed captain of a new IPL franchise, Gujarat Titans, and it was still not known what role he would play for them. In his IPL career until then, he had performed a highly specific function in an assembly line of superstars; how would he respond to a broader and fuzzier role in a weaker top seven?
He hadn't delivered a single ball over his last two seasons at Mumbai Indians; would he be able to bowl at all for Titans? If not, would they be able to live with playing an extra bowler and compromising their already iffy batting? And oh, Hardik had never captained a team at senior level; how would he lead this group of players who had never played with each other before?
So many questions.
It was remarkable, therefore, that nothing Hardik did on Sunday in Ahmedabad, in front of a crowd of 104,859 - possibly the largest ever to watch a game of cricket - came as a surprise, even though he turned in one of the most influential all-round displays in an IPL final.
His biggest impact was with the ball, but even as he dismissed Rajasthan Royals' three most dangerous batters and finished with a better economy rate than Rashid Khan's - who went for just 18 in his four overs - he did nothing you hadn't seen before.
Ahmedabad is Titans' home venue, but not quite Hardik's. He plays for Baroda, which is one of three regional teams from the state of Gujarat in Indian domestic cricket. His bowling was entirely at home, though, on the pitch that was served up for the final. It offered steep bounce while being two-paced, and it perfectly suited his into-the-pitch mix of quick short balls and slower cutters.
"[At the] right time, I wanted to show what I have worked hard for, and today was the day, from my bowling point of view, I saved the best for the best [stage]," Hardik said during the post-match presentation. "I think [that] the second ball of my spell that I bowled, after getting Sanju [Samson] out, I saw that if you hit the wicket hard and if you bowl on the seam, something is going to happen.
"So, for me it was all about sticking to the right lengths and asking the batters to play a good shot rather than me trying something and giving a boundary."
ESPNcricinfo's data illustrates Hardik's precise and unwavering execution of this plan. Of the 24 balls he bowled, he pitched 17 either short or short of a length, six on a good length, and only one on a full length.
Sometimes you just need to ask batters the same questions, over and over.
With Royals 60 for 1 and going at less than eight an over, Samson went for a low-percentage option, aiming to flat-bat a short-of-good-length ball over mid-off. The ball kicked up awkwardly, and Samson skewed it to backward point.
Then, in Hardik's third over, Jos Buttler - whose slow start could have contributed to the risk Samson took - tried to open his bat face and guide the ball to third man. A bit of extra bounce, possibly, and a bit of nibble off the seam - neither in any way pronounced - caused him to edge behind.
By then, Hardik had tormented Devdutt Padikkal as well, bowling seven balls to the left-hand batter and conceding only a leg bye. That sequence included a pair of offcutters that gripped and beat the outside edge, and a 143kph bouncer that left Padikkal late on a hook. Into the pitch with pace variations, and let the ball do its thing.
When Rashid dismissed Padikkal in the 12th over, it felt like a little gift from the T20 gods. The pressure Rashid creates often brings other bowlers wickets, even on days when he himself goes wicketless; he was now a beneficiary of the same sort of favour from Hardik.
Royals were sinking, fast, but they still had hope as long as Shimron Hetmyer was in the middle. Starting the 15th over having given away only seven runs in his first three, Hardik suffered his only dose of punishment on the day. First, Hetmyer made room and punched a length ball over mid-off for four. One ball later, Hardik bowled his one full ball of the evening, and Hetmyer opened his bat face to steer it between wicketkeeper and short third man.
The next ball was Hardik's last of the day, and it was back to basics: into the pitch, while angling the ball across the left-hand batter. There was a bit of wobble to the release, even if it wasn't really a slower ball, and it gripped and stopped on Hetmyer. Looking to work the ball into the leg side and retain the strike, he only managed to pop a leading edge back to the bowler.
Samson, Buttler, Hetmyer. All consumed by Hardik's relentless execution of a simple plan suited to his natural style. With his four overs done, Royals were 94 for 5 after 15, with precious little left in their batting reserves for any chance of a fightback.
They could, and did, fight back with the ball, though, and Titans, chasing 131, were 23 for 2 when Hardik walked in. He had performed a steadying role at No. 4 all through the season; all that remained was to do it one last time.
In seven seasons for Mumbai in the IPL, Hardik had scored his runs at a strike rate of 153.91. He had hit a six every 9.8 balls, and had hit more sixes (98) than fours (97).
After his innings on Sunday, this was his batting record for Titans: 487 runs at an average of 44.27 and a strike rate of 131.26. He had hit 12 sixes - one every 30.9 balls - and 49 fours.
If you have watched Hardik bat over the years, you wouldn't be surprised by his success in his new role. A former Test cricketer, Kiran More, coached him in his formative years, and his technique reflects it, with his drives in the V exuding a textbook purity. And when he has had a chance to settle into an innings in the longer formats, he has demonstrated a feel for constructing long innings. Before this season, he hadn't had too many opportunities to begin a T20 innings with more than ten overs remaining, but at Titans, he has adopted that role out of necessity and relished it.
"Any given day I'd take the trophy than me batting at [a strike rate of] 160 or 170," he said at the presentation. "Team is the most important, whichever team I play for. I have always been that kind of individual. Outside noise does not bother me, and if I have to sacrifice and have a worse season and my team still wins, I'll take that.
"I've always fancied myself as a batter. Batting comes first to me, it's always going to be close to my heart, so, obviously when we got the auction done, it was clear that I had to bat up the order to guide [the team through the middle overs]. I have been in this kind of situation before, so for my team, I thought that it's the best position for me to bat, so that all the other batsmen can come and express themselves."
Like his bowling, Hardik's batting on Sunday was defined by a rigorous adherence to a pared-down game plan. Titans' asking rate was never going to be an issue, so he set out to soak up pressure and wait for the Royals bowlers to blink first and land in his arc.
He had moved to 4 off 11 balls, for instance, when Prasidh Krishna pitched one right up, and Hardik put it away with a devastatingly clean strike, a full extension of the arms to launch the ball over mid-off while leaning back to create elevation. When Titans' equation had come down to 63 off 51 balls, he tried to create room against R Ashwin, who followed him with a flat, full ball at his feet. Hardik couldn't free his arms, but no matter, a whip of the wrists was enough to send the ball soaring over the midwicket boundary.
These shots were of the kind that make you wonder whether Hardik's new role, as well as it suits his team's needs, is the best showcase for his T20 skills.
In an ideal world, every team probably would look to send Hardik in at around the 14th over or so, giving him an over or two to get his eye in before laying waste to the bowling. When he next plays T20Is for India, he'll probably get to play that sort of role, batting at No. 6 or 7.
But in showing he can bat in another way, if needed, and by showing it over an entire season, Hardik has shown just how high his ceiling can be, across formats. ODI No. 4? Why not, if the situation calls for it? Test-match allrounder? Surely, if he can handle the workload?
And if all this feels like we're getting ahead of ourselves, that's almost the point, isn't it? Focusing on the process and controlling the controllables can be left to the cricketers. The rest of us, peering in from outside, are free to dream. We're almost obliged to, after a season like Hardik's, and a final like his.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo