“The plus point what I have is that my bowling and batting (skills) are equal. Obviously, batting will be a more stronger point but I am quite a good enough bowler as well. I bowl quick too. I can be a proper fast bowler,” a yet-to-debut in international cricket version of Hardik Pandya had said in December 2015.
That rather flattering self-assessment can be owed to the exuberance of youth, but nearly three years on, he has pocketed a position in the Indian limited-overs setup that doesn’t seem to have any worthy contenders. As of now, India cannot fathom going into next year’s 50-overs World Cup without him, something that should feel as good as living up to the lofty standards you set for yourself even before making a foray into international cricket.
But if the time since his international debut in Australia has indicated one thing, it is that Hardik – the bowler – is a bit of an enigma. There’s surprising pace sometimes, an equal dose of discipline and waywardness, and the gumption to stare batsmen in the eye and be up for a mini-tussle. But what he surprisingly doesn’t seem to carry is the famous fast bowler’s ego, or so he wanted all to believe in Bristol.
About 15 minutes into the game on a bright sunny day at the County Ground, it was amply clear that Virat Kohli had misread the green appearance of the pitch. He replicated England’s plan from Cardiff by replacing a spinner with an extra fast bowler – a massive misstep in a series decider. India had three front-line pacers, but with an insipid track and odd ground dimensions to play with, it looked like even a couple more couldn’t have made a difference – unless they went by names Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Jasprit Bumrah.
Hardik’s opening over – sixth of the innings – seemed like a drill from the training ground. But England’s.
Jason Roy and Jos Buttler had picked at least one boundary in each of the first five overs of the game, and were primed to find a whole new level in the last six balls of the powerplay. The best Hardik could do was bowl short and hope for a mishit. Four, four, six and six was the order in which he was welcomed, before having to trudge off with a 22-run over.
The game had quickly slipped into the phase where bowlers were being openly mocked for the choice of their vocation in the sport, and India’s bench player Krunal Pandya saw the need to put an arm around his younger brother’s shoulder and assure him that he’ll bounce back. Interestingly, Hardik was least perturbed.
“See this T20 format, it’s a funny game. You need to back yourself and come and bowl your best balls. I still remember after getting hit for 22, I was still normal. My elder brother Krunal asked me… ‘It’s okay, you’re going to do it’ and I told him ‘yeah the game is like that,” Hardik revealed.
Beyond the ‘right lengths’ cliche that cricketers love to talk about retrospectively, Hardik and India learnt very early that the only way of putting a lid on the obscene scoring rate was to keep picking wickets. The problem though was that they couldn’t quite put that theory to practice. Not until Hardik returned for his second spell, at least.
Kohli deserves as much of a pat on the back for what followed, simply for being able to time Hardik’s reintroduction with the ball to perfection. Siddarth Kaul in the eighth and Deepak Chahar in the 10th over put a spanner in the works of the England openers by sending both Buttler and Roy back in quick succession, and allowed Hardik to have a crack at two fairly new batters in the 12th.
And this is when the absence of a pacer’s ego led him to damage limitation – the need of the hour for India. “My focus was just to make sure I bowled different balls rather than just bowling yorkers because length… I mean the shortest boundary was straight and if I miss my length, it will go [for a six].
“In shorter formats, when I bowl I think as a batsman. Generally when I bowl, apparently batsmen are going hard in this format. So I try to think as a batsman and I try to outplay them,” he added.
Eoin Morgan and Alex Hales managed all of two singles in his second over where Hardik kept bowling at good length and short of good length. By Hardik’s next over, England had reached a point of desperation. Their exceptional start was about to unravel in the face of some middle-overs pressure – put expertly by Yuzvendra Chahal – when Morgan decided that taking a hard swipe at the ball and trusting the small dimensions of the ground to come to his rescue was his only option.
But Hardik mixed it up. After an over full of similar, shorter lengths, he started his next with two balls full and wide outside the off-stump. Morgan attempted his crorss-batted shots anyway, perishing on the second attempt. Hales sent a bumper from Hardik into the square leg stands in the same over to allow the pressure to ease a bit, but misread a cutter on good length outside the off-stump that followed right after, nicking it to Dhoni.
Even after Chahal’s four overs yielding just 30 runs, England managed to maintain a run rate upward of 10 an over, and eyed an even better output in the last three overs in order to fly past the 200-run mark. But then, they ran into Hardik.
If the margin for error in a such a venue was minuscule for a bowler, it further diminished against the hitting arc of a broad-shouldered batsman like Ben Stokes. Once again the assortment of deliveries let Hardik win the one-on-one tussle. After trying the bouncer and slower ones on good length, it was a short-of-good length ball outside the off-stump that had Stokes heaving it straight down Kohli’s throat at long-on.
Jonny Bairstow caught an early bluff from Hardik, waiting in the crease and whacking a slower one over cover. But his decision to continue staying deep in the crease and perhaps look to target the leg-side fence didn’t quite work out. Hardik went full and wide, forcing Bairstow to awkwardly stretch out – and hence only get an edge to Dhoni. Kaul and Yadav too raised their game to leave England two short of 200, but it was Hardik’s ability to dig a hole right through England’s heart that gave India a sub-par target, and hence the series.
“Some days it works, some days it doesn’t,” was how Hardik described the game where he out-thought the batsmen on a turf friendlier to them, summing up his role with the ball perfectly. He still doesn’t guarantee the success and consistency rate of an out-and-out bowler, but evenings like these make it easier for Kohli & Co. to make peace with that.