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Asia Cup 2023 – Hardik Pandya delivers a hit with his fire and intensity

It was one of those games where the scorecard may not entirely reveal the impact Hardik Pandya had with the ball on the overall result. His figures read 5-0-14-1, which while being very impressive were not quite the blockbuster of the kind you saw from 20-year-old left-arm spinner Dunith Wellalage (5-40) or Kuldeep Yadav (4-43).

Yet, they left an indelible mark on India’s spirited defence of 214 on a surface where the ball was gripping, turning square, keeping a tad low at times, and, in general, playing up and down enough to have batters between the devil and the deep blue sea. One moment they were thinking patience was the order of the day, and that you needed to tread with caution like KL Rahul and Ishan Kishan did in a superb exhibition of batting against spin during their 63-run stand that led India’s revival after three quick strikes.

Next, when they were seeing spinners come on and challenge both edges of the bat, as Wellalage did by simply sticking to a wicket-to-wicket line and varying his flight and angles, you couldn’t help but think it’s best to try to play your shots before a ball has your name on it. How batters from both sides tackled this dilemma made for compelling viewing. And it’s amid this that Hardik truly stood out with his fire and intensity, a compliment that has largely been reserved for his batting, and captaincy to a large extent, in the past.

It’s no secret India have longed for Hardik to bowl in this manner for a while and have done everything possible, even having him wrapped in cotton wool, precisely for this kind of impact. For starters, this certainly allows India dynamism in the selection, as you saw on Tuesday with them fielding a third specialist spinner in Axar Patel to support Kuldeep and Ravindra Jadeja. Sure, the conditions did help spin but even if they don’t to the extent they did here, India are in a position to think flexibility and batting depth and have Hardik play the role of a third seamer, and not a bits-and-parts bowler who can merely hold an end up.

Hardik’s intensity really helped India, especially when for a while it looked as if they were just running out of gas when Dhananjaya de Silva and Wellalage threatened a jailbreak. It’s no rocket science, but on raging turners of the kind, invariably the ones that don’t turn are more dangerous more often than not. But such pitches can over-excite spinners to some extent, and it seemed to be the case for a while with Jadeja and Axar.

It was at this point that Hardik stepped in and bowled a searing spell where every ball seemed to have the batter’s name. Hard lengths, nip off the pitch, bounce, landing it with an upright seam to have the batter nicking – he did it all, and with a disarming smile that told you he knew he was in top gear. All of these variations were married with deadly accuracy. He was consistently touching 140kph, hitting high on the bat and having the lower order dancing to his tunes.

At mid-on, Rohit Sharma, who was just beginning to lose his patience, was finally able to afford a smile that turned into full-blown laughter when Hardik finally picked up his first wicket, the eighth of the innings, with Maheesh Theekshana splicing one to a diving Suryakumar Yadav at mid-on. Suddenly Sri Lanka needed 43 off 55 with two wickets in hand.

Only a while earlier, Hardik had begun that spell with Sri Lanka needing 62 from 16 overs with two set batters in Dhananjaya and Wellalage at the crease. So it wasn’t like he was gifted it on a platter. But in sussing out conditions quickly and delivering a telling spell in which he slowly gnawed at the batters, not necessarily bombing them with thunderbolts, he gave them a good work over that eventually got them thinking a reasonable risk against the spinners was worth punting on. This proved to be Dhananjaya’s undoing when he tried to hit Jadeja against the turn but was caught at mid-on. Four overs later, the game was nearly sealed.

Hardik’s was one of those efforts where the supporting actor earned as many plaudits as the hero who everyone expects to deliver a blockbuster. For India, those heroes were jasprit bumrah and Kuldeep Yadavwho were at the forefront of yet another stunning show to go with their impact against Pakistan 24 hours earlier. Hardik, though, wasn’t to be denied. He had swiftly moved from being a tortoise to the harewhich he quite wasn’t even until as late as July.

With the World Cup less than a month away, it couldn’t have been shaping up any better for him, and India.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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