On Sunday, India pipped their arch-rivals in the Asia Cup encounter by five wickets as they chased down 148 in 19.4 overs. Far from being a one-sided affair, the match was a humdinger and went down to the wire.
The difference between the two teams was Indian all-rounder Hardik Pandya who finished the match by insouciantly thumping the left-arm spinner Mohammad Nawaz for a six over deep mid-wicket. In the penultimate over, he had cracked three boundaries off the pacer Haris Rauf to ease the pressure. His 17-ball 33, which came at a critical juncture, were instrumental in India successfully nailing the target.
Before he came good with the bat, Hardik had bowled with prodigious exuberance and sting. In the 13th over of Pakistan’s innings, Hardik’s whistling bouncer accounted for Iftikhar Ahmed who was looking dangerous. In his next over, Hardik nipped out Mohd Rizwan – Pakistan’s best T20I batsman – and Khushdil with bitingly nagging bouncers and dashed their hopes of notching up a huge total.
In four overs, he conceded only 25 runs and snaffled three crucial scalps. Pakistan sorely missed the presence of an all-rounder of Hardik’s pedigree. They had no seamer to fall back after their three main fast bowlers – Naseem Khan, Rauf and Shahnazwaz Dahani – started feeling enervated. In the batting as well, they had no one in their lower middle-order who can reel off a brisk cameo.
But this is not a one-off performance by Hardik. Since his return to international cricket in June, the dashing all-rounder has been in whirlwind form. His redemption began during the Indian Premier League (IPL) where he led Gujarat Titans to the title in their inaugural season.
Since then, he has unleashed a clutch of sparkling performances. In the T20I series against South Africa, his cameos at Vizag (31*) and Rajkot (46) were instrumental in India levelling the series after losing the first two matches.
Then he became the first Indian cricketer to wallop a fifty and chalk up four wickets in a T20I match outside India. The all-rounder attained this remarkable achievement against England at Southampton as India bagged a 50-run win.
Since June 2022, only Suryakumar Yadav has scored more runs (339) in T20Is for India than Pandya (314). What makes these numbers even more impressive is the fact that Hardik usually bats at no.5 or no.6 and has taken up the mantle to finish the innings on a high. His splendiferous strike-rate (144.03) is the testament to his gargantuan impact.
As a bowler, he has snared 11 wickets at a fine average of 24. More importantly, most of the wickets he has picked up are of top-order batsmen. His presence in the playing XI lends amazing balance to the team. The sudden upswing in his bowling can be attributed to his supreme fitness. There was never a shred of doubt about his ability or pedigree but his dodgy fitness at times adversely affected his bowling prowess. But the flamboyant cricketer has worked assiduously on his fitness in the last one year and is now bowling with visible zest and verve.
Also, he’s arguably India’s best fielder after Ravindra Jadeja. The supremely fit Pandya is not just an extraordinary cricketer in white-ball but India’s most impactful player in limited-overs cricket. At present he is the mainstay of India’s T20I team and will have to make enormous contributions as an all-rounder if India have to do well in the upcoming T20 World Cup.