The return of Hardik Pandya

Hardik Pandya in ICC T20 WC 2024 Final
Hardik Pandya in ICC T20 WC 2024 Final (PC: BCCI/X)

When Rahul Dravid, now former head coach, pointed out in January 2022 that the Indian team lacked balance with key players missing at numbers 6 and 7 in South Africa, it was clear to one and all that he was referring to Hardik Pandya. Having taken an indefinite break, Pandya was on the comeback trail at the time. Hardik at full intensity was something the team was missing. And now, we know why Dravid said what he did. In this World Cup, Hardik the all-rounder stole the show. Bowling at speeds between 135-140kmph, it was almost the Hardik of old. Not only has he bowled his full quota in most games, he did so at good pace and rhythm. He looked very impressive with the bat as well and was key to India’s successful campaign. 

Hardik, often misunderstood and criticised, has always been an emotional person. “I have always rushed myself with my preparation keeping the team’s interest in mind,” he had once said to me. “I have always worked hard in silence and will continue to do so.” And he has. He has built up strength and is back to his best.

Just like every other human being, he has made many mistakes in the past. He has rushed his return post-injury each time, he got himself into trouble with television shows and had a rough ride with the selection committee in October 2021. For a 26-27 year old to deal with stardom isn’t easy. Money, glamour and fame aren’t easy bedfellows and there are many who aren’t ready to deal with them all. Hardik was a classic example. All of a sudden, he had it all. In the course of the last five years, he has become a multi-millionaire, with millions looking up to him as a role model. His is the perfect underdog story. Rags to riches. People seek him out for autographs, want to pose for pictures with him and share the same social space with him. He is an Indian national team cricketer, who justly is one in a billion. It is a heady world, which also has its flipsides. You tend to overlook the responsibilities that come with it, you tend to get swept away by the gloss and it makes you feel you can get away with anything. 

Hardik Pandya vs South Africa
Hardik Pandya vs South Africa (PC: BCCI/X)

India need Pandya the all-rounder. Almost every team that plays top-flight T20 cricket has six bowling options and Pandya is critical for India’s balance. In the Caribbean, where medium pacers have fared extremely well, Pandya was more than handy in the middle overs and that explains why the Indian management continued to back him. 

At this point, India does not have a like-for-like replacement for Pandya. Shardul Thakur is more a bowling all-rounder who can bat, and isn’t the finisher India are looking for at No. 6. Shivam Dube isn’t ready yet and the World Cup was proof. Nitish Reddy is injured and isn’t really a replacement for Hardik just yet. India needs Hardik to do what he was able to do against South Africa, and could invest him with leadership responsibility as well. His bowling, may I say, is the real plus. This is because all things change if Hardik isn’t able to bowl. Without the overs coming from him, the balance of the team is substantially reduced and that does open up areas of concern for India. Hardik the all-rounder is the key and will continue to be going forward. 

This World Cup is one of the most important tournaments Hardik has played in his career. Each time the odds were stacked against him, he managed to come up with a telling performance. Be it in the final against South Africa or a fantastic batting effort against Australia, he has proved his worth as a genuine all-rounder for India. He has also ignited hope that he is ready for the leadership role, with Rohit retired, and will yet again put all debates to rest if given the job.

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