Unfazed Hardik saves his best for the last

Hardik Pandya celebrates the wicket of Jos Buttler | Credits: BCCI

Aryan Surana

There were emotions galore in that slow-motion clip. Shimron Hetmyer's leading edge is plopping towards Hardik Pandya in his follow through. The uneasy expression on the batter's face is in stark contrast to the anticipatory smile taking form on the bowler's. As the palms of the Gujarat Titans skipper come together to accept the dolly, the ball still suspended mid-air, activity begins in the backdrop. It's the home team's dugout up on their feet, initiating the claps and cheers as Hardik shorns Rajasthan Royals of their firepower in the foreground.

His bowling fitness had been subject to much debate heading into the IPL season. A back injury suffered during the 2018 Asia Cup had kept him from rolling his arm over for the better part of two years. He'd been demoted from Grade A to Grade C in the BCCI central contracts list and it seemed as if he would have to compromise on one of his two skills to sustain his career. In an interview in February this year, when asked where his bowling is at the moment, Hardik said: "It's a surprise for everyone."

It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He resumed bowling in top-flight cricket in the IPL 2022 campaign opener against Lucknow Super Giants and there were no half-measures whatsoever. Hardik steamed in, bent his back and clocked speeds north of 135 kmph to mitigate doubts about his viability as an all-rounder. He didn't always bowl his full quota in the league stage owing to workload management and the fact that the franchise had ample resources at their disposal. As GT took the crown with more than a lakh in attendance, it's safe to say, in hindsight, that Hardik the bowler was saving his best for the last.

RR were 45/1 after the PowerPlay. Yashasvi Jaiswal had tried too hard to make his presence felt and spliced a bouncer to deep square leg for a 16-ball 22. Lockie Ferguson had bowled some serious gas to keep Jos Buttler honest, with his 157.3 kmph thunderbolt pipping Umran Malik to the post in the race for the fastest delivery of this edition. Rashid Khan holding sway in the match-up saw Buttler trudge at a run-a-ball 22 after 8 overs. RR was desirous of a move-on. Enter Hardik Pandya.

He struck second ball to dismiss his opposite number. Samson played a pull with his weight not yet on the backfoot as Sai Kishore gobbled up the miscue backpedalling from point. The wicket belonged to Hardik but it was as much a product of the pressure created by Rashid, who'd given away just 5 runs in the previous over. ''Second ball of my spell when I got Sanju out, I saw that if you hit the wicket hard and hit the seam something is gonna happen. So, for me it was all about sticking to the right lengths and asking the batters to play a good shot rather than me trying something and giving a boundary,'' Hardik told in the post-match presser.

The pacer's reluctance to offer width tied Devdutt Padikkal down. He faced 7 balls before getting off the mark as Hardik's figures read 4/1 after 2 overs. Runs were coming at a premium and a consequent double whammy left RR waist-deep in trouble at 79/4. While Padikkal cut Rashid aerially to walk back for a 10-ball 2, Buttler nicked off to Hardik's good-length ball that straightened after pitching. RR had come so far in the tournament fielding six specialist batters and five designated bowlers, but such a team construct meant they were willing to trade off batting depth. As Buttler, whose tally of 863 in an IPL season is next best only to Virat Kohli, departed for a 34-ball 39, RR's soft lower-order was exposed with Hardik and Rashid conceding just 35 runs between them and accounting for 4 wickets.

Having won half the battle for his side with a sterling spell, Pandya arrived at GT's rescue in the second half with a 30-ball 34 that put them on the home stretch in the pursuit of 131 after an early wobble. When Ravi Shastri quizzed Hardik at the toss about the big-match nerves, he said: ''We want to treat this game as normal as possible and take the right decisions.'' It's a hackneyed cliche that most captains throw on the night of a final. But it was evident through Hardik's demeanour that it's a guiding philosophy for him, more so now than ever before.