Shashwat Kumar was in Mumbai to witness a cracking opening spell by Hardik Pandya, one that made millions across the country rejoice and wonder if the mercurial all-rounder was finally getting back to his best.
Over the past couple of years, not many Indian players have divided as much opinion as Hardik. The answer to India’s pace-bowling all-rounder’s craving for generations, he was even compared to the legendary Kapil Dev at one point. The fall from lofty heights though, post a serious back injury, was just as steep and swift.
Before the 2021 T20 World Cup, there was brief optimism that Hardik had managed to put behind his long-standing fitness woes. He didn’t bowl for Mumbai Indians throughout their campaign last year, but there were murmurs that he had recovered enough to come close to attaining bowling fitness. But when he rocked up at the ICC event and looked like a pale shadow of the bustling all-rounder he once was, it led many to label his selection a mistake, a rather damning assessment for someone who looked set to be a true matchwinner for India around 2019.
From those perspectives, the 2022 iteration of IPL was very significant for Hardik. Not because he was captaining a franchise – Gujarat Titans – for the first time, but because many were intrigued to see if he was finally fit enough to bowl at full tilt. In his first game against Lucknow Super Giants, Hardik did take the ball, but seemed to bowl within himself. He hit good lines and lengths but wasn’t quite menacing. The seamer conceded 37 runs in four overs without picking up a wicket. Against the Delhi Capitals, however, things started to click.
Usually employed after the new-ball bowlers, Hardik stepped up and took responsibility, sending down the second over of the innings. He got the ball to move and bounce awkwardly, with one such delivery leading to Tim Seifert’s dismissal, his first wicket since IPL 2019. There was a real zip to his bowling, something that certainly wasn’t the case when a half-cooked Hardik turned up to roll over his arm at the T20 World Cup half a year ago.
A match later, his bowling displays reached a crescendo. Against the Punjab Kings, Hardik took the new ball again and posed all sorts of problems for the batters. He hit hard lengths consistently and got the ball to shape away from the batters beautifully, even hurrying batters and ensuring that the ball hit the bat hard.
Mayank Agarwal, who usually feasts on anything short, was rushed into his pull stroke and could only manage a top edge that lobbed up to short mid-wicket. Shikhar Dhawan was also troubled by the all-rounder. On a few occasions, the left-hander tried to access the off-side, but the inward seam movement meant that he could only swish and miss, inside-edging a boundary past the keeper. In the final over of that essay, the wheels came off a touch for Hardik, as he shipped 16 runs. By then, though, he’d presented enough evidence of his fast-returning bowling mojo, despite not playing any competitive cricket since November.
From an India standpoint, Hardik’s contributions in both suits could be pivotal ahead of the World Cup, given the balance he lends to the side. In IPL 2018 and 2019, he picked up 18 and 14 wickets respectively and was a regular feature in India’s first-choice white-ball XI too. If he is bowling well, it gives India the luxury to unleash him and Ravindra Jadeja in tandem, with both combining to bowl at least four overs, solving what’s been India’s recent problem of finishing the sixth-bowler’s quota.
Fortunately, Hardik’s batting has not suffered as much in recent times. Since the start of 2020, he has been striking at 145.49 and has gotten starts each time he has batted this season. His lack of bowling, however, meant that he was competing as a specialist batter, and an average of 26.5 wasn’t particularly striking. In his absence, Venkatesh Iyer climbed up the ladder and presented a strong case, bowling relatively regularly at the top level while being belligerent with the bat. Hardik’s delivered the goods time and again in the past, and if he does continue firing on all cylinders, it would be tough keeping him out.
‘X-Factor’ is an overused term in modern-day cricket, especially in the shortest format. Not many, however, are as emblematic of that tag as Hardik. He provides that extra bit of quality and match-winning ability, meaning that he also warrants a little extra leeway.
Over the past couple of years, the Titans skipper has been quite uninspiring, and he’ll probably admit that too. It’s still early days, but the recent rediscovery of form could bring back the confidence, for he was once an indispensable commodity in the white-ball setup. Whisper it, but Hardik could indeed be getting back to his best.
There’s still a lot of cricket left to be played between now and the end of the IPL. There is also enough time before the T20 World Cup rolls into town as well. But the early signs are promising. And that, after the nadirs his career plummeted to in 2021, is quite a story in itself.