The way Hardik Pandya holds the bat is strange. His hands are set much higher up the handle than most batsmen, and when his wrists whip through a shot it can often look as if the bat is about to burst through his hands, and fly off away from him. It clearly aids his explosiveness, helping him get extra leverage against deliveries that others would hit along the ground, but it also lends a certain frisson to his batting, a sense of danger. At times in the last few years it has felt like Hardik’s grip on his own career was just as loose. At times, it’s felt like all his potential was slipping through his fingers.
18th June 2017. The Champions Trophy Final is taking place, South London filled with India and Pakistan fans flocking towards The Oval, preparing to see cricket’s fiercest rivalry appear on a worthy stage. Less than two years later, and the story of how that day unfolded is already a familiar one, how Fakhar Zaman and Mohammed Amir shocked the World No.1s, and blew India away. Two magnificent individual performances gave the men in green the title, as well as the most keenly fought bragging rights in world sport.
But the best innings of the day wasn’t played by a man in green, but in blue. The 76 (43) that Hardik played was remarkable. Innings are typically spoken of as being “constructed”, but none of those 43 shots gave the sense of a man building anything. This was pure destruction. Hardik was decimating the attack, tearing down Pakistan bowlers one by one. Planted in the minds of the most optimistic Indians, and pessimistic Pakistanis, was a sense that something special was happening. The potential for this game to have a final twist was there.
Then of course, it ended. Run out by Ravi Jadeja, Hardik flounced back to the pavilion in visible discomfort and anger. It was understandable. Here was a 23 year old in the biggest match of his life, sensing greatness, at however great a distance, then it was yanked away from him.
Yet those detached from the heat of the situation could see something else. With a sense of perspective, it was clear that here was a talent truly announcing itself on the global stage; this was the final match of one tournament, but this young man was clearly on a serious trajectory. The next world tournament that rolled around would surely be in his sights. Hardik Pandya had arrived.
Has that been the case?
In short, no. India head into the World Cup as second/joint favourites, and are correctly regarded as a brilliant side. However, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who sees Hardik as one of the “defining” players of this side. In ODI cricket last year, he averaged just 13.60 with the bat. He may ‘balance the side’, get through overs and help the overall structure of India’s line-up, but that is a dramatic collapse.
From the Champions Trophy onwards, he’s passed 50 twice, never passed 100, and averaged 23.30. On that June day back in 2017, Hardik stood up and told the world he was the next superstar in line. He hasn’t said it since. His Average Batting Impact since then is almost exactly zero, suggesting that the average player could have offered everything that Hardik has offered with the bat.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the issue. Just as he showed when clattering Imad Wasim over long-off two years ago, Hardik can decimate spin – but he’s crumbled against the seamers. A recent average of 41.80 against the former is dragged back down to earth by an average of just 17.13 against the latter. Those are humbling numbers.
It’s infected his game across the board, and has lead to a very strange 12 months or so for the young man. Some blamed India’s Test losses in South Africa on his presence. In England he starred with the ball at Trent Bridge, but struggled to make an impact with the bat, and fell through the cracks as India, again, came up short overseas. Personal controversy has seen him miss matches, and lose the support of some fans and commentators. In Hardik’s absence from the touring party going to Australia, Kohli’s side made history. Many predicted that Hardik’s ascension to international cricket would be instrumental in India’s all-format supremacy; in fact, the supremacy came without him.
However, in the last few weeks, Hardik’s loose grip on his career has tightened, if only metaphorically – because he’s having one of the great IPL seasons with the bat. 355 runs, considering he’s coming in late in the innings, is astonishing. His scoring rate, 11.96rpo, is well and truly elite. In the history of the competition, this storied tournament that’s seen all of the greats appear on its stage, only one man has scored 200+ runs in a season at a faster rate. The only batsman to ever outperform Hardik in this regard is Andre Russell, this season.
The effect that Hardik has had on Mumbai Indians’ batting has been immense. This season, his Batting Impact of 9.3 is the second best of anyone on show. Again, he’s trumped by Russell – but being the best of the rest is an impressive achievement in this scenario. Hardik is finally bringing his talent to bear on a major tournament and making a tangible, obvious difference to his team.
It’s come out of nowhere. Nothing in Hardik’s performance over the last 12 months have suggested he was ready to ascend to these new heights, and while there have been some changes to his game since the start of this tournament, they have been more qualitative than strategic. This season, Hardik has attacked a higher proportion of his deliveries this season than he has ever done before; he has also played a false shot to a lower proportion than ever before. To match increased aggression with increased security is impressive. Few could do it.
Encouragingly, he has maintained this excellence against all bowling types. He’s averaged 48.40 against pace, and 56.50 against spin, scoring at more than 11rpo against both. The imbalance we’ve seen in his ODI batting has not been evident in his T20 form. There has been some substantial improvement in all areas of his game that has left him a more complete batsman.
However, rather than some silver bullet that has solved his ills, Hardik’s improvement seems to be more down to various elements falling into place. Before this year, at various points, he has shown ability in all facets of batting. In 2015 – his debut IPL season – he recorded an Attack Rating of 198, remarkably high. In 2017, he managed to record Timing and Power Ratings of 133 and 142 respectively, but was unable to match it with the naked aggression he showed when he first burst on the scene. This year, he’s brought it all together; an Attack Rating of 199, a Timing Rating of 149 (his highest ever) and a Power Rating of 147. It’s the first time that every aspect of Hardik’s batting has come together and clicked. And my, how it’s clicked.
His improvement could equally be a result of what has gone on around him. Mumbai weren’t exactly a rabble last year, but they weren’t exactly on their game; this year, they are clearly an improved team. Specifically, they have been getting off to better starts – their dismissal rate in the Powerplay (36) is the best they have ever recorded in an IPL season. Hardik has been able to launch his fireworks from a solid platform, and it’s hardly a surprise that they’ve gone further and burned brighter than before.
India’s decision to omit Rishabh Pant from their World Cup squad leaves a vacancy that needs to be filled – the guy who goes berserk at the death. Hardik may still not quite have the temperament to bat at No.4 in ODI cricket, but he can certainly take the late-order hitting role. His role in the World Cup is going to resemble his Mumbai Indians role rather closely, arriving in the final overs and trying to smack a tired attack over the rope. On the evidence of this IPL, you’d have to say he’ll do well.
If Hardik couldn’t bowl, people would appreciate his batting far more. It would be spoken of in similar tones as people speak of Pant’s – stylish, flawed, but recognised. His versatility, his ability to contribute in all areas of the game, has meant that in the area where he can contribute the most, he goes underappreciated. He’s a man who has made a Test century on debut, who can almost match Rohit Sharma for power and swagger, if not yet in material returns.
So in a way he’s gone full circle, from prodigy to the doldrums and back again. June 9th, almost exactly two years since he last did so, Hardik will walk out to bat in an ODI at the Oval. A lot has happened since then. There is still a gulf between how Hardik Pandya presents himself to the world, and how the world judges him. Yet if the runs he’s made in IPL 2019 – and the way he’s made them – say anything, it’s that the gulf is closing.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.