It’s one of those games where a scorecard may not entirely reveal the impact Hardik Pandya had with the ball on the overall result. His figures read 5-0-14-1, which while being very impressive isn’t quite the blockbuster of the kind you saw from 20-year-old left-arm spinner Dunith Wellalage or Kuldeep Yadav.
Yet, it left an indelible mark on India’s spirited defence of 214 on a surface where the ball was gripping, turning square, keeping a tad low at times and, in general, playing up and down enough to have batters caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. One moment, they were thinking patience was the order of the day, and that you needed to tread with caution, like KL Rahul and Ishan Kishan did in a superb exhibition of batting against spin during the course of their 63-run stand that led India’s revival after three quick strikes.
Next, when they’re seeing spinners come on and challenge both the inside and outside like Wellalage did, by simply sticking to a wicket-to-wicket line while also varying his flight and angles, you can’t help but think it’s best to try and play your shots before one ball has your name on it. How batters from both sides tackled this elephant-sized dilemma made for compelling viewing. And it’s amid this that Hardik truly stood out with his fire and intensity, which over time has largely been spoken of only with his batting and captaincy to a large extent.
It’s no secret India have longed for Hardik to bowl this way for a while and have done everything possible, even having him wrapped in cotton wool, precisely for this kind of impact. For starters, this certainly allows India dynamism in selection, like you saw on Tuesday, with them fielding a third specialist spinner in Axar Patel to complement Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja. Sure, the conditions did help spin but even if it didn’t to the extent it did here against Sri Lanka, India are in a position to think flexibility and batting depth and have Hardik play the role of a third seamer, and not a bits-and-parts bowler who can merely hold an end up.
Hardik’s intensity helped India to a large extent, especially when for a while it looked as if they were just running out of gas and were desperately searching for warp mode when Dhananjaya de Silva and Wellalage threatened a jailbreak. It’s no rocket science, but on turners of the kind we saw on Tuesday, invariably the ones that don’t turn more often than not have the potential to be more dangerous than deliveries that bite off the deck. This can overexcite spinners to some extent, and it seemed no different for a while with Jadeja and Axar.
It was at this point that Hardik stepped in and bowled a searing spell where every ball had the batter’s name. Hard lengths, nip off the pitch, awkward lengths, bounce, landing it with an upright seam to have the batter nicking – he did it all, with a disarming smile that told you he knew he was in top gear. All of these variations were married with deadly accuracy. He was consistently touching 140 clicks, hitting the top of the bat and having the lower order literally dancing to his tunes.
At mid-on, Rohit Sharma, who was just beginning to lose his composure, was finally able to afford a smile that turned into full-blown chirp and laughter with Virat Kohli when Hardik finally picked up his first wicket, the eight of the innings, when Maheesh Theekshana spliced one to a diving Suryakumar Yadav at mid-on. Suddenly Sri Lanka needed 43 off 55 with two wickets in hand.
Only a while earlier, Hardik had begun that spell with Sri Lanka needing 62 off 16 overs with two set batters in Dhananjaya and Wellalage. So, it wasn’t like he was gifted a platform on a platter. But in sussing out conditions quickly and delivering a telling spell in which he slowly gnawed at the batters, not necessarily bombing them with thunderbolts, he gave them a good work over that eventually got them thinking a reasonable risk against the spinners was worth punting on. This proved to be Dhananjaya’s undoing when he tried to hit Jadeja against the turn but was caught at mid-on. Four overs later, the game was nearly sealed.
Hardik’s was one of those efforts where the supporting actor earned as many plaudits as the hero who everyone expects to deliver a blockbuster. For India, those heroes were Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Yadav, who were at the forefront of yet another stunning show to go with their impact against Pakistan 24 hours earlier. Hardik, though, wasn’t to be denied. He had swiftly moved from being a tortoise to the hare, which he quite wasn’t even until as late as July.
With the World Cup less than a month away, it couldn’t have been shaping any better for him, and India.