Can Hardik Pandya put his career back on track?

A year can feel long or short, depending on your experiences during those 12 months. Some years just fly by and others feel like an eternity. How do you measure a year as good? No bad experiences or predominantly good experiences? Or, by your unprecedented experiences – good ones – over the course of a year? Well, for Hardik Pandya, 2015 was an amazing year, one that he will never forget, no matter what happens from here on. Chances are, he would have seen it fly by.

He was picked to play for the Mumbai Indians (MI) in IPL 2015, after John Wright witnessed a couple of his match-winning performances for Baroda in the 2014 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, which they went on to win, and shortlisted his name. Footages of Hardik’s batting and bowling performances during that tournament were then shown to Ricky Ponting, MI’s head coach. The former Australian skipper, like those who had seen Hardik before and live, was impressed. The result: an IPL contract for Hardik and a chance to develop under the tutelage of Ponting and be overseen by the all-time batting great Sachin Tendulkar. Pandya really did strike gold in 2015.

Earning himself an IPL contract was not the solitary highlight of the 2015 calendar year in which Hardik also got a call-up to the national Twenty20 (T20) side for the three-match T20I series in Australia, at the beginning of 2016. Hardik played in all of India’s 16 T20Is until the defeat to the West Indies in the ICC World Twenty20 (WT20) 2016 semi-final and then in 11 games of Mumbai’s IPL title defence. When he looks back at the first half of 2016, Hardik will be quite disappointed by his lack of substantial contributions to either India or MI in the IPL. His poor performances for Mumbai, in particular, played a major role in the Indian selection committee ostracising him from India’s One-Day International (ODI) and T20I squads for the 2016 tour of Zimbabwe.

Having experienced success and failure in the space of 18 months and currently finding himself out of favour, what can Hardik Pandya possibly do to revive his international career?

Read on…

At the top-most level of any sport, a year can make a lot of difference: players who are in form, might lose their rhythm and suddenly find run-scoring or taking wickets to be tough and on the flip side, players who have been struggling, might regain their touch and start to garner runs heavily or pick wickets again. This is arguably the greatest challenge for any sportsperson and what makes sports so beautiful. Therefore, what Hardik is experiencing is perfectly normal and we can look at his recent failures as a mere drop in form. He is only 22 and if he keeps working on his game, many years of cricket are ahead of him.

What has happened and needs to happen for Hardik Pandya?

However, Hardik, as an all-rounder, has a unique challenge and returning to form will definitely not be like eating a piece of cake. And, at least for the moment, he is predominantly seen as a player with potential who is suited to playing T20 cricket, thanks to his ability to score runs at a good clip and chip in with a few overs of medium-pace bowling too. This format of the game has helped him announce his arrival on the world stage and in his debut IPL season, Hardik took everyone aback by his innate ability to find the boundary – along the carpet or over the ropes – with ease.

He single-handedly won Mumbai a couple of games which they seemed destined to lose, with his big-hitting ability. His IPL performances caught the eye of the Indian selectors, who picked Hardik for the Indian T20 side just five months later. Can the format which helped Hardik showcase his potential with bat and ball, also help the Baroda all-rounder rediscover his form and subsequently revive his international career? It can, but a lot will depend on the role Hardik is given by the team management.

The reason I fear for Hardik’s career and wonder if T20 cricket will be an ideal platform for him, is because he is not a specialist batsman or bowler, but an all-rounder who hence will be deployed as a middle or lower middle-order batsman. Ponting was very audacious, kept Faith in Hardik’s batting ability and deployed him as MI’s No. 3 in the first three games of IPL 2016.

What happened?

Hardik failed – his scores being 9, 9 and 2 – and the major giveaway was, he looked disconcerted and clueless. He wanted to play his natural game, but even in T20 cricket, occupying the crease has to be one of the primary objectives for any batsman. And in Mumbai’s case, they lost an early wicket in each of their first three games, meaning Hardik had to be patient and a little conservative. I am not sure if Hardik did not expect to be deployed so higher up in the batting order, given his batting technique, or was disappointed with himself for not repaying the faith kept on him.

From Ponting’s vantage point, Hardik was the leading run-scorer – with 377 runs in 10 innings – in the 2015/16 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and he had batted at No. 3 in nine of his 10 innings. Ponting, therefore, took a cue from Pandya’s exploits for Baroda and hoped that the youngster would come good for Mumbai too, albeit on a much bigger stage and when the quality was many notches higher.

Hardik’s batting technique needs to improve and he must start to play all over the dial, more often.

With the ball, Hardik has done well for Mumbai and for India too. In 16 T20Is, Hardik has picked up 15 wickets and a good economy rate of 8.08 runs-per-over. He has also proved his adeptness at bowling more than one length and batsmen at the international level have, therefore, found sussing Hardik out to be difficult. His spell against Australia in India’s final group game of the ICC WT20 2016, showcased his ability to bowl short and get the ball to rise up to the batsman’s throat. Such a ploy paid dividends for Hardik and India, as the Kangaroos not only got a taste of their own medicine but India and Hardik were also pretty successful. The 22-year-old all-rounder picked up Aaron Finch’s wicket with a well-directed short delivery. He might have gone for 36 runs off his four overs, but importantly, Hardik bagged two wickets, off short deliveries.

In contrast to how he bowled against the Aussies, Hardik was asked to bowl full, targeting the blockhole, against Bangladesh, who were India’s penultimate group opponents. He was quite successful, albeit a bit fortuitously, and helped India stay afloat in the competition. Needing to defend 11 runs in the final over, Hardik had gone for nine runs off the first three balls (1, 4 , 4), without making any major errors in executing his plans. But then, his low full tosses brought the desired effect, with Mahmudullah holing out to deep mid-wicket, trying to slog when just two runs were required off three balls. Hardik, therefore, was a bit fortuitous, but again, he showed that he can bowl full when the situation demands or if his captain wants him to target a batsman.

With the ball, therefore, Hardik has done very well at the international level. For Mumbai, he has not bowled much and also been quite expensive. However, having bowled just 33.4 overs in 20 IPL games over ‘two IPL seasons’ so far, this would not be the right time to analyse Hardik’s bowling performances for Mumbai and in the IPL.

I think this is the right time to tell the reason why, in my opinion, Hardik faces a unique challenge to revive his international career.  

Hardik Pandya’s biggest problem

He is not going to be picked for his bowling, by either Mumbai or the Indian selectors. His batting has to improve and Hardik must prove that he can bat for long periods and lend stability to the innings. Providing a grandstand finish is Hardik’s forte, but from his career welfare’s point of view, the ability to find and clear the boundary alone will not help him succeed. Hardik’s batting technique needs to improve and he must start to play all over the dial, more often.

Can you believe that a whopping 51 (65.3%) of Hardik’s 78 runs – in seven T20I innings – have come on the on-side?

The fact that those many runs have been scored by him on the leg-side is not a big matter of concern. What, however, is his disposition to use his bottom hand more than the top hand. To hit sixes, you will need the bottom-hand (which in Hardik’s case is his right hand) to impart power into the stroke and also to lift the ball. But very few batsmen can be predominantly bottom-handed and yet, score on the off-side – Virat Kohli, though, is a prime example of someone who is quite bottom-handed but has a much bigger range of strokes than Hardik.

When Hardik is in his zone, he tends to hit the ball predominantly in the region from long-on to deep square-leg. He does not play the cover drive, square cut or the inside-out shot over extra cover much – for playing which you need your top hand (which in Hardik’s case is his left-hand) to do the business. These are batting fundamentals which Hardik has to revisit if he wants to revive his career.

Another observation from Hardik’s batting is his ineptitude against spin. His IPL and T20I stats do not quite prove how poor he currently is, in tackling spin bowling. But I think he has to improve his game against spin, by at least a couple of notches. Hardik Pandya will not have a problem playing off-spinners, because he can hit a traditional off-spinner to his favourite part of the ground. Leg-spinners and left-arm orthodox spinners are the ones who have caused Pandya problems of late: in his last 10 innings for India and MI, two of Hardik’s dismissals have been to a leg-spinner (Piyush Chawla, Kolkata Knight Riders) and a left-arm spinner (Mitchell Santner, New Zealand), and what do you think is the reason for his struggles? Hardik’s inability to play on the off-side, generally, but more so in the region from mid-off to backward point.

Summary

The quicker he learns from his errors and works on his weaknesses, the better Hardik’s chances of reviving his international career will be. The competition for places in the Indian Test, T20I and ODI sides will always be heavy. Sadly for Hardik, India do not play any T20Is over the next six months at least, so he might have to wait until the inter-zonal domestic T20 league tournament, which has been introduced by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in place of Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, to prove his mettle again.

Hardik can take inspiration from players like David Warner, who started off as a T20 specialist before making the Australian ODI and Test sides and is currently proving to be one of the better batsmen across all formats. For Hardik Pandya, however, the tricky part is him being an all-rounder who will not be picked for his bowling. Therefore, his batting has to improve and Hardik also has to revisit his batting technique, which, at the moment, is restricting him from accruing runs against all kinds of bowlers and being a reliable batsman, basically.

Do you think Hardik Pandya can revive his career and become a key component for India in all formats? Have your say below. We’d love to hear from you!

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