Hardik has kept ticking the right boxes from day one, and Thursday night was an out-an-out Pandya Show.
With great power, comes great responsibility we’ve been told. Apparently, with great responsibility, comes greater feelings of being careworn. There’s been a few stats floating around the IPL on how several batters – free-stroking and mightily talented – have experienced a severe dip in strike rate in their debut captaincy seasons, when compared to those immediately before.
Hardik Pandya had one look at that, and decided he wasn’t having any of it. For Hardik, with great responsibility, comes great power - behind his shot-making, in his throwing arm, and in his bowling.
This is not because Hardik blasted his way to 87* off 52 against Rajasthan Royals. (We’ll get to his fielding and bowling later). It is more because, an innings of this kind from Hardik felt inevitable. You might look at his last knock, when he made 50* off 42 against Sunrisers Hyderabad, and get sucked into believing that Hardik was playing the ‘responsible’ role whole-heartedly.
Sure, Hardik’s strike-rate in the previous innings was lower than what you generally expect of him, and yes, he was initially more watchful. Also true, that the death-overs destroyer of bowlers wasn’t in full bloom. But sometimes, as a batter, you can only do as much as the bowlers and fielders allow you to do. If the bowlers are nailing yorkers, bowling to their fields, and are backed by nimble-footed men, you can do all the work you need to as a batter, and still not get the desired results. And make no mistake, Hardik did all the work even against Sunrisers, and then some. It’s a measure of how well he did it that he still ended up with a respectable score, in the face of accurate bowling, good fielding, and lesser batting support. But the way he was hitting them, you knew that around the corner, there lurked an innings like the one that materialised against the Royals. Bowlers and fielders can’t be on point all the time, not against someone like Hardik. All it takes is one hit, two hits, and suddenly you are aware that if you don’t get it right, Hardik will take you down. Take. You. Down.
The smarter analytics systems in T20 cricket barely look at bland strike rates. They look at the phase of the match you’re batting in, the team situation, the bowlers to face, and what kind of batting support you have. They would have painted a better picture of Hardik's previous innings. Even so, you can’t account for batting intent, because that is not a precise measure. If you see it though, you know it. If you see Hardik, you know it’s not just intent, it’s intent on hyperdrive.
And it’s not just in his batting. You could see it in the way he fielded, in the way he made it three for three in accounting for opposition skippers with that magnificent direct-hit run out off Sanju Samson. You could even see it in how he bowled his 2.3 overs before he was forced to jog off the field as a precautionary measure for cramps. Someone else in Hardik’s place might have taken it easy when bowling, especially after the kind of batting exhibition he put on. Not so for Hardik.
This time he walked in at 15 for 2 in the third over, on a ground where there was going to be heavy dew. The Titans needed runs, a lot more runs. Hardik scored off each of the first six balls he faced, three of them boundaries. It was the sort of taking the game by the scruff of its neck stuff that Hardik has done umpteen times. Except he was doing it at the start of the innings now, instead of at the death. And then he just carried on in the same vein.
He could have probably kept wickets if he fancied himself too. This match was all Hardik, from start to finish, at important points and whenever inspiration was needed. Even Hardik was moved to describe the day as “pretty special, to be honest”, when asked about it after the match. That pretty special day has now made the Titans the only team in the competition with four wins, breaking free of a top-table clutter.
Gujarat Titans are on top of the IPL 2022 points table, and Hardik Pandya’s on top of his game, and on top of the world right now.