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Feature

On the spot with the ball, a bit of Dhoni with the bat - this Hardik works well for India

For the India allrounder, it's mainly a matter of backing your strengths but "making sure to use it very wisely"

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
29-Aug-2022
Mohammad Rizwan had struggled to force the pace in front of square. So, when Hardik Pandya bowled a short ball into him, trying to arch back and ramp the ball fine was a legitimate call. Except, he may have underestimated Hardik's pace.
This wasn't the old Hardik. This was Hardik the fast bowler, who can crank up the intensity when required, bounding in and bending his back. The same back that had nearly given up four years ago at the same venue against the same opponents, and in the same tournament.
On that September afternoon of 2018, Hardik had to be stretchered out, after clutching on to his back, in severe pain. So many questions. Would Hardik ever be able to bowl full tilt again? If he can't, can he hold his place in the team as a batter alone? What does that do to team balance?
Until February this year, it was all shrouded in mystery, especially the bowling part. Obviously, he hadn't spoken about it publicly. At a Gujarat Titans press event, where he was named the captain, Hardik stoked the fire even more when he said the answer to it "will be a secret".
After last year's T20 World Cup, where Hardik played as a specialist batter, he decided to take time off. He went off the grid, even social media. He worked out a robot-like schedule with a focus on sleeping and training. Every ball he bowled, every ball he batted, every lap he ran around the ground, every squat he did was mapped.
Then came a time when Hardik feared getting hit by the short ball.
He wasn't used to wearing a chest guard, which he realised was an "ego issue". Once he was made to understand by former India wicketkeeper Kiran More, his mentor, that it was perfectly acceptable for batters to wear a chest guard, and that even great batters of the past had done it, Hardik relented.
What happened at the IPL then is fresh in the memory. He batted at the top, in the middle, as a finisher, put himself under the cosh in tough situations and came out on top. Hardik's work behind the scenes as a bowler, too, bore fruit. The zip was back, he was bowling full tilt and without the worry of someone who is always afraid of breaking down. It was Hardik 2.0 unleashed.
It's this version we saw on Sunday night in Dubai, when he had Rizwan completely off balance with the short ball. As Rizwan arched back, he had gotten into a position where it was impossible to bail out. The ball kept coming at him and flew off the bat face as Avesh Khan came around and put in a dive to hold on at deep third. This was a classic fast bowler's wicket.
"The calmer I can stay, it's going to help me execute all the plans. Those executions, the 50-50 chances that I take, if I am calmer, it helps me to pull it off. Obviously, it was just seven runs [needed in the final over], even if it was 15, I would have fancied my chances"
Hardik Pandya
You didn't need to see the speed gun to tell you that it was a fast one. Only an over earlier, he had rushed Iftikhar Ahmed into a hook that was caught by the wicketkeeper. Two balls after Rizwan fell, he had Khushdil Shah's attempted slash to a heavy ball finding Ravindra Jadeja at deep cover. All his three wickets had come off effort balls.
As per ESPNcricinfo's logs, all of Hardik's deliveries were in the short-of-a-length zone. Nothing full. Each of his three wickets came with the short ball. Each of his deliveries also touched, and crossed, 140kph.
"In bowling, my plans were pretty simple," Hardik told Star Sports after the match. "I always tell the same thing. It's just how I use it. I tell that it's important to kind of assess the situation and conditions, and use your weapon which I feel, you know, hard lengths and hitting the length is my strength. But I make sure I use it very wisely, put some doubt in the batter and ask them to play the wrong shot."
Yet, for all the work with the ball, the game was on a knife's edge when India needed Hardik the batter to stand up. It had been a difficult chase on a tacky surface. And it wasn't until Hardik's three fours in the penultimate over, bowled by Haris Rauf, where he played to the field and took advantage of Pakistan having only three fielders outside the ring - because of their slow over rate - that the game was in India's control.
This was a chase right down MS Dhoni's alley. One where he knew the bowlers were under as much pressure, or maybe more, as he was. And one mistake was enough. Then, with six needed off three, Hardik swatted a flat six over long-on to finish it off. There were no fist bumps or angry growls - just a sense of calm all around and the acknowledgement of having done a job he always knew he could.
"In batting, over the years, I have understood [that] the calmer I can stay, it's going to help me execute all the plans," Hardik said. "Those executions, the 50-50 chances that I take, if I am calmer, it helps me to pull it off. Chases like this, you always plan overs. For me, it started from the 15th over. I knew we're running short, but there's one guy who is making his debut [Naseem] and there's one left-arm spinner [Mohammad Nawaz]. Obviously, it was just seven runs [needed in the final over], even if it was 15, I would have fancied my chances.
"I try to keep [my mindset] as clean as possible. I don't try to put a lot of thoughts because I feel the bowler is much more under pressure than me. I don't have anything to lose. I know it's just one six. It's not an ego thing. Against spinners, I fancy my chances more than fast bowlers."
Rohit Sharma was happy with the new and improved Hardik, and spoke of the work behind the scenes.
"He's a lot calmer, yes, but is very confident of what he wants to execute on the field, whether with the bat or ball," Rohit said. "He's quite confident, he understands what sort of field placements he needs to have. And he can bowl quick. We saw that today with those short balls. Obviously, a lot of hard work goes into it.
"It was more about understanding his own game. With the bat as well, he was quite calm in the middle, trying to guide the team through it and when we were in a situation like that, high-pressure game, to get 10 runs in an over, there are times where you can panic too. But he didn't show that at all, he was quite calm and took us through."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo