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Pandya the Punisher

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Hardik_Pandya_India_cricketHe has a West Indian, Viv Richards-like swagger about him. His eyes shine with unabashed confidence. And both those traits look good on him. Because he knows how to take them in his stride. This is the time of Hardik Pandya, you see. And you simply cannot ignore him.

The Indian batting all-rounder has been making the right noises these past few months – especially with his power hitting – and his evolution as an uninhibited match-winning star for Team India has been truly phenomenal. Given the consistency with which he has been performing for India of late, and the impact he has been having, it looks like Hardik Pandya is slowly blossoming into one of the most crucial players in the team’s setup at present.

The thing that sets Pandya apart is his X-Factor. He is fearless in his approach and can literally change the complexion of the game within overs with his savage bludgeoning. Yes, he is still pretty raw and has been untested in unfamiliar conditions. But the fact that he wasn’t even a regular in the side till last year and has forced his way to be the team’s reliable match-winner at present needs to be applauded.

Where exactly Hardik Pandya goes from here will be interesting to see. But for now, he is well and truly a game-changer.

The fall and the turnaround

When Hardik Pandya had initially burst onto the scene, he was considered a bits and pieces cricketer suited only for the shortest format of the game. Through his exploits in the IPL for the Mumbai Indians, Hardik became a household name. That he had all-round skills of bowling fast-medium pace along with his incredible hitting ability with the bat gave him that extra edge and soon he was drafted into the Indian limited overs side.

Although he did well initially, that breakthrough performance never really came in. The year 2016 did not begin well for Pandya as he faltered one time too many. Moreover, Pandya’s bowling was extremely erratic where he leaked a lot of runs in crucial situations for India.

The 2016 edition of IPL was another major blip in the youngster’s career as Pandya failed miserably in that edition of the tournament, both with the bat and the ball. Soon after, he was not being considered for selection in the Indian team.

Things looked grim for Hardik Pandya then. In his little time there, he had not been able to shake off his ‘bits and pieces’ image and his future in the national setup looked uncertain.

But then began the transformation. The coming of Hardik Pandya 2.0.

It was during India A's tour of Australia last year that Pandya took the first step towards his metamorphosis. In the second unofficial day-night Test in Brisbane, Pandya struck a sparkling 79 off 116 balls on a seaming track to bail his team out of troubled waters. It was a mature and solid knock that came under extreme pressure and against a very good bowling attack. And that one effort commenced the turnaround for Hardik Pandya.

He was soon brought back into the national team and has not looked back since. The confidence that he gained from that Brisbane knock has clearly flowed into his batting and bowling across all formats. Pandya has not just been contributing towards the team’s cause, he is winning games for them.

A vital cog in India’s batting order

In the time since Mahendra Singh Dhoni has become a little subdued, the Indian team has been in desperate need of a six-hitter. Hardik Pandya 2.0 has taken that role with aplomb. Pandya not only wallops the ball, he bludgeons it with merciless nonchalance that can be extremely dispiriting for the bowler. He punishes bowlers if they err even the tiniest bit in length and takes the game away from the opposition if he is allowed to set in.

To put things in perspective, just a year into international cricket and Pandya is already in the top 25 six-hitters for India in ODIs. Such has been his effect.

What’s interesting is that unlike the past, Pandya has also matured as a batsman. And now, his role has become that of a floater in the middle-order to be used according to the match situation.

For instance, in the third ODI against Australia recently, captain Virat Kohli promoted Pandya to the No.4 spot in a tricky chase of 294. The intention was to take the opposition by surprise and Pandya did precisely that by producing a scintillating 78 off 72 balls that won India the game. Earlier in the series, India was reeling at 87-5 in the first ODI at Chennai. Pandya went on to smash an absolutely stunning 66-ball 83 that didn’t just give India a respectable total, it eventually won them the game.

And it is not just the limited overs format where Pandya has excelled of late. He has managed to leave his imprint in the longer form too as was evident with his terrific maiden Test hundred against Sri Lanka earlier this year.

While Pandya has also improved his bowling tremendously and has given the captain another genuine seam bowling option, it is the growth in his batting that is of vital consequence to the team. The Indian middle-order has been a tad brittle with MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav’s inconsistent form and Manish Pandey yet to have established his place. Team India needs the power and confidence of Pandya in their batting order to move things along at a brisk pace and intimidate the opposition in tense situations.

There is a genuine method to Pandya’s madness and opposition teams are now beginning to realize the threat he poses. "Against Hardik Pandya, who is a dangerous hitter, if you get it just a little bit wrong, he hits you out of the park," said Australia's assistant coach David Saker. “It's a learning curve for all of us bowling to him. He's a very good talent.”

Looking ahead

This is a good time to be Hardik Pandya. The 23-year-old is enjoying his moment in the limelight and with a long home season still pending, one can expect more fireworks from his bat.

However, one must be just a little cautious in showering praises on the young lad. After all, he is still pretty raw and untested in overseas conditions. He has struggled at times against quality pace bowling and it remains to be seen how he fares on the bouncy and seaming tracks of places like South Africa & Australia or the swinging conditions of England. If he can excel in those conditions then we can safely assume that Hardik Pandya is here for the long haul.

But that is a discussion for some day in the future.

For now, though, let’s just revel in the exhilaration that Pandya brings with him. Let’s just be dazzled with those colossal sixes from his bat that he wields like a club. Let’s just relish his swagger and confidence. Let’s just enjoy his refreshing brand of cricket.

This, after all, is the time of Hardik Pandya.

 

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