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Amidst ups and downs, can Pandya deliver a memorable World Cup?

Last updated on 31 May 2024 | 03:05 PM
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Amidst ups and downs, can Pandya deliver a memorable World Cup?

Hardik Pandya's topsy turvy fortunes has made fans unsure of what to expect of him, but he remains a critical link to India's tactics at the T20 World Cup

Ups and downs are imminent in the career of every cricketer who has stayed relevant at the highest level for as long as Hardik Pandya has. Pandya made his IPL debut in 2015 and his India debut in 2016, and his life has dashed into fifth gear ever since. But the inevitability with which he has shifted from a good phase to a bad phase and vice versa makes it seem like his professional career is a running daily soap. 

Most of these shifts are beyond the cricketing logic. Pandya will shine when the pressure and uncertainty are at their extreme. Meanwhile, he will undergo a free fall just when there will be a sense of invincibility about his aura. 

How else will you describe his Indian Premier League (IPL) fortunes in the last three years? He broke away from Mumbai Indians (MI) for the first time. Captaining in the league for the first time, he led Gujarat Titans (GT) to the title in the franchise’s first season. In the second season, they were in the hunt until the last ball in the tournament was bowled. 

In IPL 2024, Pandya returned to an established Mumbai. Reportedly, he came to the side on his own terms. He had the experience of leading successfully in IPL. MI played Qualifier 2 last year. The expectation was that with their squad and Pandya’s chutzpah, MI would go at least one step further if not two. However, with all odds in Pandya’s favor, his stars tanked and Mumbai finished at the bottom of the points table. Pandya averaged 18 with the bat, the lowest for any batter with 200 runs or more in the season. 

For Gujarat, Pandya rode the captaincy bull by its horns. Taking the onus of doing everything, the skipper first promoted himself in the batting order. In his previous seven seasons with Mumbai, Pandya batted only 12 out of his 85 innings at four or above. In two years for Gujarat, he never batted below number four and wasn’t shy of walking out to bat in the powerplay.

Pandya was one of GT’s most prolific batters. The right-hander scored 833 runs in two seasons, averaging 37.9. But it came at a cost. Batting in the upper half of the order, he was turning into an anchor. There was a significant drop in his strike rate in the first 15 balls — from 150.8 in seven seasons previously for Mumbai to 131.9 in two years at Gujarat. 

He also took the new ball on occasion, sometimes without any cricketing merit warranting his move. But with Gujarat maintaining a win percentage of nearly 70%, it was all working out for the team and Pandya. 

Success with Gujarat elevated Pandya to captain India. The number three and four slots were not available for the Men in Blue. Pandya batted 11 of his 15 innings as India’s T20I captain at number five, averaging 27.4 at a strike rate of 128.8. Nothing inspiring here. 

Like India, MI also didn’t have a spot for Pandya to bat in the top four. It was one silver lining of his move to Mumbai — after brushing off the finisher’s role in the last few years, Pandya can play a full season of IPL to get himself acclimatized to the role again before the World Cup. 

But he had a horror season with the bat. He averaged 18 for his 216 runs, the lowest among the 51 batters who scored at least 200 runs in IPL 2024. The 30-year-old batted seven innings at five, averaging 14.5 at a strike rate of 135.1. 

In four innings at number six and seven, he scored 56 runs at a strike rate of 147. It is a decent number but not what you expect from a senior pro like Pandya, that too in a high-scoring season. In the last five overs, Pandya managed only 50 runs in the season. 

Facing pace, he was constantly troubled by the back-of-a-length and short deliveries angling into him, mostly trying to flat-bat them between mid-wicket and long-on. In Mumbai’s opening fixture of the season against Gujarat, Pandya miscued a rising short ball from Umesh Yadav straight to long-on when his team needed nine off four balls. Mumbai lost by six runs. 

For India since 2022, Pandya averages 16.2 against these deliveries, striking at 133.9. It is just for Gujarat when Pandya was able to deal with this length. However, walking out to bat early, he wasn’t under pressure to take them on, as can be seen in his numbers. 

As India approaches another World Cup, the biggest question around Pandya is if he will re-adjust to his role as a finisher. The number five role he took as Men in Blue's captain seems to be unavailable in the current setup. India would want a left-hander at that spot, namely Rishabh Pant or Shivam Dube. 

Pandya will have to bat at six at best, where he has a strike rate of 109.8 for India since 2022. He will have to find a way to improve that. Simultaneously, he will have to beware of bowling teams targeting him with balls rising around his rib cage. 

The Gujarat-born has played in each of the three World Cups in the last three years. In all these events, he has tactically been India’s most valuable player given the gulf between him and the other seam-bowling all-round options India hold in their kitty. 

Yet, there Pandya hasn’t done much to take note of, barring a 33-ball 63 in a losing cause against England in the 2022 World Cup semi-final.

The pressure, yet again, is immense on Hardik Pandya. And fans would hope that his career continues with unforeseen ups and downs — this time displacing him into a good phase when the odds and numbers are stacked against him. 

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