Where is Hardik the batting maverick?

The rationale behind his dipping strike rate is not clear, but he would want to try and find a way out

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
When Virat Kohli said one "can't create overnight what Hardik Pandya brings at No. 6" last October, he was referring to his middle-order power-hitting specifically. Over time, Hardik has been able to marry this ball-striking with the game-smarts that have made him a feared white-ball destroyer.
Hardik, who has largely batted in the lower middle order, has notched up the seventh-most number of sixes in the IPL since 2017, with 92 hits.
This fearless hitting was witnessed during the Champions Trophy final in 2017, where Hardik swatted six sixes against spin - almost immediately from the get-go - to make a whirlwind 43-ball 76 in a crumbling chase. We have seen that in Australia, where his finishing act - a 22-ball 42 - in a 195-chase helping India seal the T20I series in December 2020. He has done it numerous times for Mumbai Indians in the IPL.
So, what makes Hardik tick? When in full flow, He can line up his scoring zones with a touch of brutality to his game. His powerful wrists and bottom-handed power have added different scoring zones to his repertoire. He can scythe wide yorkers behind point with the same efficacy as playing a helicopter to a yorker-length delivery.
But so far this season, this version of Hardik hasn't yet surfaced. His 141 runs in four innings this season have come at a strike rate of 122.60. This pales in comparison to his overall strike rate of 150.5 in the IPL. In the death overs, specifically, he strikes overall at a mind-boggling 187.60.
This time around, Hardik has tried to take his innings deep, before trying to pull off a late jailbreak. This hasn't worked, like it didn't on Monday night against Sunrisers Hyderabad when he remained unbeaten on a 42-ball 50, with Gujarat Titans "finishing seven to 10 runs short" by his own admission.
Barring the one knock against Punjab Kings where he made 18 off 27, Hardik has largely looked to build an innings. At Mumbai Indians, the presence of enforcers in Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Quinton de Kock, and at times Kieron Pollard, left him with a clear mandate: of going out to take down attacks.
At Titans, it's easy to assume it's perhaps the added captaincy responsibility that is making him restrictive in his approach. But there could be a bigger factor at play: the auction. Titans made a splash when they signed Shubham Gill and Rashid Khan along with Hardik as their core group of players, but the batting is still thin on experience.
Abhinav Manohar is a middle-order finisher, who hadn't played a single T20 game until six months ago. B Sai Sudharsan has been picked on the back of one prolific Tamil Nadu Premier League season. It makes for a great story to tell how the franchise has backed two new players to rise to the occasion, but when it affects the overall batting dynamics, it's hard not to look at the fault lines.
Both Manohar and Sudharsan are now playing the role of enforcers. While Gill has been in scintillating touch, Matthew Wade has managed just 56 runs in four innings. Vijay Shankar, a batter they would've hoped a lot more from, finds himself out of the mix, firstly because of injury and then due to team combination.
The top order isn't brimming with alternatives either. Hardik's move up to No. 4 has meant leaving the role he dearly loves to the likes of David Miller and Rahul Tewatia. There is one problem, though. Miller is not the same player that he has been. Since IPL 2016, Miller has the second-lowest strike rate among 59 batters who have faced over 500 balls,
For Hardik, as a young captain, this can be a massive sacrifice, but it boils down to a lack of options. With only one other young batter in Rahmanullah Gurbaz to potentially fill in, the dearth of options may have fired Hardik to be a pillar at 4.
Hardik's captaincy mantra has revolved around "taking pressure off youngsters and asking them to play freely." What freedom does he enjoy? It's quite striking to look at the significant dip in strike rates of first-time Indian captains in the IPL as compared to the previous two seasons. Hardik's dip from 151.67 in the previous two seasons to 122.6 currently is the biggest.
As the season enters the second half and pitches tire, average scores could come down. Spinners may have a bigger say. The dew factor could be negligible, and Hardik may have to re-look at his approach.
Even though it might not be his most ideal role, as a team man, one can understand his rationale behind doing it. But he would want to try and find a way out.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo