Asia Cup 2023: Hardik holds key for India's fortunes
After the successful maiden IPL season in 2015, he endured modest returns while playing his first international series in Australia.
COLOMBO: A lot has changed since Hardik Pandya made his India debut in a T20I against Australia in January 2016. After the successful maiden IPL season in 2015, he endured modest returns while playing his first international series in Australia.
The home series against Sri Lanka thereafter didn't go well either. Down Under, he didn't get to bat and picked only three wickets in as many matches. Against Sri Lanka, he batted twice scoring 29 but remained wicketless in three matches.
It all changed for the better when the Baroda all-rounder made the ball talk on the seamer-friendly pitches in Bangladesh during the 2016 Asia Cup, which was played in T20I format. The performance made him the seam-bowling all-rounder India were looking for and so he was included in the T20 World Cup scheduled later in the year.
The next few years, however, were not kind to Hardik as a back injury in 2018 limited him from bowling while a controversy over a TV show next year saw him being pulled up by the BCCI. But Hardik managed to arrest the slide the next year and slowly graduated into a senior player the team was expecting him to be.
The year 2022 turned out to be the best year for him as he not only started his journey as Indian captain in the shortest format but also led Gujarat Titans to the IPL title in their maiden season.
Since then, Hardik's stature has only grown. All along this little more than seven-year journey, the Asia Cup has served as a gateway to a better future for Hardik. It happened in 2016 and the script looks the same this time with only the format being the only difference.
Back then, Hardik was starting off and riding on his performance in the continental event he made it to the India squad for the T20 World Cup. Coming back to the present, the tournament, this time in ODI format, has been presenting him yet another opportunity ahead of the quadrennial tournament to make his presence felt. And making the best use of the chances, he has already started on a bright note by playing a gutsy knock against arch-rivals Pakistan in India's Asia Cup opener on September 2 at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium. Along with wicketkeeper-batter Ishan Kishan, he added 138 runs for the fifth wicket to resurrect India's innings after they were reduced to 66/4 by Pakistan pacers.
He didn't get to bat in the next match against Nepal but threw down eight overs with three being maiden. The spell fetched him a wicket as well. Given the utility player he is, Hardik could be a vital cog in India's plans for the home World Cup. With him being the pace-bowling all-rounder, it's like a cherry on the cake for the team.
India skipper Rohit Sharma admitted Hardik's form will be crucial for the team while announcing the squad of 15 for the World Cup on Tuesday. "You saw the quality in the last game against Pakistan. Ishan and Hardik put their hands up and scored well. Obviously with bowling too he’s great. He has bowled well in the last year and a half for us. His form will be crucial to us. He’s a guy who does both the things, and that’s important," Rohit said.
The Indian captain was all praise for the mature innings Hardik played against Pakistan where he scored 90-ball 87. "The way he batted in the last game (vs Pakistan) showed that he has a very mature head on his shoulders. These are good qualities of good batters. In the last year or so he has come up with the bat and his bowling has been good too. That’s important for us."
While Rohit is definitely targeting the upcoming 50-over World Cup in the country starting October 5, that would not be the only goal for Hardik, who has been leading the team in the shortest format for quite some time now. The 2024 T20 World Cup in West Indies and USA could be his target.
Ahead of the Asia Cup, he had led India in the five-match T20I series against West Indies last month. The Men in Blue lost the series 2-3 and Hardik took the blame for the loss. He would desperately want to learn from that failure when the Indian team returns to the Caribbean next year. But before that, Hardik would also want to come true to his captain's expectations when the showpiece event begins in the country next month.