Cricket India

Hardik Pandya’s struggles a big worry for India ahead of the T20 World Cup

Hardik Pandya is going through a worrying phase in his career. Not only is the Indian all-rounder struggling with fitness issues, highlighted by his prolonged absence from the bowling attack, but he is also finding it hard to maintain his flow and consistency as a powerhitter against quality bowling.

Before his unconvincing, yet enough-to-win-the-match 30-ball 40 on Tuesday against the Punjab Kings, Hardik was aggregating only 55 runs from his eight innings in this year’s edition of the IPL at a strike-rate of 110. The cricketer had made 281 runs at an average of 35.12 and strike-rate of 178.98 in MI’s surge to a fifth IPL title last year.

Hardik’s numbers for the season are ruined by a disastrous first half where his troubles to rotate and loft spin in Chennai were there for everyone to see.

Facing spin in the IPL 2021, the aggressive right-hander has made only 3.9 runs per over, which is a significant dip from his numbers against spin from last year when he went at 7.3 runs per over on similar grounds and surfaces in UAE.

While the sample size is low, off the few balls he faced, Hardik’s false short percentage against spinners has also increased multifold; from making errors on 15.6% of balls against spinners, he has been missing his execution for 35.3% of the deliveries this year.

Hardik Pandya

Hardik Pandya has found it difficult to hit express pace at hard lengths since last IPL.

What is more worrying is that Hardik has also found it an arduous task to get going against pace in comparison to his performance last year. In the IPL 2020, Hardik went at 12.1 runs per over as a death-overs specialist against the quicks, with a false-shot % of only 13.4. In the IPL 2021, however, that has fallen to just 8 an over with 27% false strokes, reflecting problems in executing his strokes consistently.

While the blip against spin could be a one-off, notably there is a pattern developing in Hardik Pandya’s game against the pacers, especially express pace at harder lengths. Hardik has been mostly dominant versus bowlers of speeds below the 140-mark, but the moment the same bowlers go quicker and execute their lengths correctly, his shot-making ability suffers a fall.

This pattern is backed by a pace and length-wise split of numbers over 23 IPL innings since the 2020 edition – a decent sample size, even budgeting for the loss of form, problems faced at neutral venues like Chepauk.

Below is Hardik’s record spread across different lengths against balls delivered shy of the 140 kmph, followed by one that shows the record when the same pacers operate on par and above the 140-mark. Understandably, the sample size of balls bowled in the latter category is small but there is enough gap in the record here to gauge an issue.

Unless the bowler bowling 140 and above has really erred on the fuller side, Hardik has not managed to get the boundaries going regularly, something reflected not only in his strike-rate but also control percentage at shorter and defensive lengths.

The record from the ‘good length’ is eye-catching here. Hardik has managed only 6.8 runs per over with a false stroke % of 25. Even against pace below the 140 mark, while he has managed to go at 13 an over, the batter has had to take greater risks to do so, carrying a false stroke percentage of 22.6.

Not just the length but certain lines tend to pose problems to Hardik as well. Cricviz posted an interesting graphic earlier this year during India’s T20I series against England, where Hardik began with scores of 19 off 21 and 17 off 15 and made just 89 runs in total from his four innings with a strike-rate of 140.98, which was mainly boosted by his unbeaten 39 in the latter half of the five-match series.

Cricviz informed that the moment a bowler goes short and wide away from Hardik’s reach, his strike-rate falls just as sharply as it does when he aims for his body and cramps him for any room to create a big stroke.

Here is Hardik Pandya’s overall line-wise split, divided into each length, versus all pacers since the start of IPL 2020.

When is Hardik Pandya the bowler coming back?

Hardik Pandya

Hardik Pandya the seamer is vital to India’s limited-overs set-up.

On the bowling front, it is shocking that Hardik is yet to resume bowling ahead of a T20 World Cup. While India’s chief selector claimed that the 27-year-old will be ready to bowl his four-over quota in every match of the tournament, Hardik hasn’t bowled a single ball in the UAE leg of the IPL 2021 yet.

India picked one specialist seamer less in their squad with the hope that their premier fast-bowling all-rounder will be able to cover that slot. However, with just over three weeks to go before India’s first Super 12 game against Pakistan, it looks more and more a risky proposition, especially at a time when lead pacer Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s death-bowling execution has been on a decline.

Already India have had to change their balance in ODIs because of the effects of Hardik’s back surgery. He has gone from being their fifth bowler, who allows both the wristspinners to feature in the side, to a sixth bowler who bowls only occasionally and makes it necessary that another utility cricket is squeezed in at No.7 at the expense of an extra middle-order specialist in the side.

In T20Is, with the World Cup looming, India can’t afford to lose Hardik the bowler, for that would mean heavy dependence on Ravindra Jadeja to bowl his quota every game and no option to leave him out at any stage of the tournament and play that extra specialist batter on a flat pitch against a deeper bowling attack.

Despite Jadeja’s brilliance as a left-arm spinner – plus his recent improvement as a power-hitter – even he wouldn’t contest that T20 has not been his strongest suit. Hardik’s inability to bowl would mean more pressure on him to deliver the goods.

Since September last year, Hardik has not bowled a single ball in IPL cricket and has delivered just 19 overs across 6 innings in T20Is and 27 overs across 5 ODI innings. It says something about Hardik that even in those limited T20I outings, he has managed 4 wickets at a fantastic economy rate of 7.10.

But India need him to get back to bowling at least 2-3 overs per innings if they are to enjoy an ideal balance and benefit from the luxury of having a fast and spin bowling all-rounder each within their top 7 at the World Cup.

Even more desperately, India need the resurgence of Hardik Pandya the batter, who at his best can destroy opposition attacks at the death and help the upper half of their batting retain its composure and solidity for just that much longer in the innings.

The likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma are making that much deeper and bigger impact into matches when they bat with an assurance of a robust and flourishing lower middle-order, which Hardik Pandya is an integral part of.

It is difficult to see how India can reclaim their T20 World Cup crown without Hardik Pandya the all-rounder seeing a timely revival in either skill.