Hardik Pandya fires up the bowling cylinders before the T20 World Cup

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A strange trend had emerged soon after India’s T20 World Cup squad was announced. Of course, it was more for the LOLs on social media and WhatsApp groups, but a number of players in that squad of 15 began going through lean times in IPL 2024. Hardik Pandya, Sanju Samson and Shivam Dube bagged ducks; Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Suryakumar Yadav fell cheaply; and Yuzvendra Chahal and Arshdeep Singh leaked over 50 runs each in the games that followed the squad announcement. There too, like he has been all season at Mumbai Indians, the outlier was Jasprit Bumrah.

Until Monday. Until then, Suryakumar had scored a not-so-inspiring 232 runs from eight innings. Then he unfurled his scintillating, vintage boundary hitting against Sunrisers Hyderabad, putting to bed all kinds of questions around his form heading into the T20 World Cup 2024.

The real reversal of that World-Cup-bound players’ trend came before Suryakumar’s fireworks, when Hardik took the best figures of the night with 3 for 31. That showed promising signs of his wicket-taking ability and his fitness and the possibility that he could play the fifth bowler’s role in the India XI come the World Cup next month. Just like he was in the ODI World Cup six months ago, Hardik will again be a crucial cog in the India XI as finisher and third pace-bowling option whenever India play two spinners and two quicks. For someone who has “no replacement” in the words of chief selector Ajit Agarkar, Hardik’s bowling form and fitness would have given him and the team management bundles of confidence.

Monday was the third game in a row in which Hardik bowled his full quota of overs, which bodes very well for the allrounder, who came into the competition after a long ankle-injury layoff. In those three games, Hardik has picked up seven wickets across all phases of the game: one in the powerplay, five in the middle overs (7 to 16) and one in the death overs (17 to 20). And he has done that by bowling a variety of deliveries from his repertoire, depending on the conditions and the batters.

Against Kolkata Knight Riders, he first sent Sunil Narine back in the powerplay before dismissing a set Manish Pandey by taking the pace off off a cutter that the batter miscued to extra cover. While bowling against Lucknow Super Giants a week ago, Hardik kept going for the hard length with a fairly new ball that made KL Rahul and Deepak Hooda miscue their shots. Hardik’s three-for against SRH, however, would have been much sweeter because it set up a thumping win for MI after four losses on the bounce. Hardik came on as soon as the powerplay ended, and on seeing the movement on offer, he tried to hit tricky lengths and get the ball to nip around.

“I like bowling to the areas and see what the situation requires [me to do],” he said at the presentation. “If the wicket has grip, I do it, if not, like today, I thought the ball was nipping around and bowling at the right areas would be a right option and I think it worked.”

Hardik brought himself into the attack after six overs when SRH were 56 for 1. MI had fielded a thin pace attack that started with Nuwan Thushara and IPL debutant Anshul Kamboj, who leaked 32 runs in his first two overs. If Hardik had not stepped up on the night as the fifth bowler, SRH might have scored a lot more than 173.

“It is good for him and obviously good for Indian cricket. Obviously, he’s been selected in the World Cup team,” Kieron Pollard, MI batting coach, said of Hardik’s recent bowling displays. “It’s all coming at the right time, though one thing for us is that we’ve never doubted the ability and the talent in that individual.”

MI have two more games to go – against KKR and LSG – and if Hardik can bowl eight more overs while collecting some wickets and not going for too many, he might be among the most confident Indian players flying out to New York.

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