From being stretchered out in 2018 to shining with all-round performance in 2022, Hardik Pandya completes a circle in Dubai

“The comeback is greater than the setback.” With this line after India defeated Pakistan by five wickets in an absorbing Asia Cup 2022 contest, India all-rounder Hardik Pandya himself summed up his life completing a full circle in the Dubai International Stadium, seen from the pictures of 2018 and 2022.

In the 2018 Asia Cup, then played in 50-over format in the UAE, against the same opponent, Pandya was stretchered off the field for an acute lower back injury. He had clutched his back while on his follow-through in the 18th over of Pakistan’s innings after lying motionless, leaving fans as well as cricketers greatly worried.

He had bowled 4.5 overs for 24 runs until being stretchered off the field.

It was the start of his troubles with back injuries, despite coming off decently in the 2019 ODI World Cup in England. A major surgery kept him off the field for long, but the troubles persisted as he was far from his best.

In the 2021 T20 World Cup, Hardik bowled only four overs and conceded 40 runs, and did not bowl against Pakistan in Dubai as India were hit hard by him not being at his peak.

On Sunday, Hardik was up for the challenge against the same opponents at the very same venue from the very same tournament in 2018. But with his back all fine after working on fitness during a long self-taken sabbatical and lots of game time lined up since IPL 2022, the result was bound to be different.

He was bowling fast, troubling Mohammad Rizwan and Iftikhar Ahmed with his short balls and even brought out the bouncer occasionally.

Soon, Pandya was rewarded for his persistence. He bounced out Ahmed and the top-edge was caught safely by Karthik. In his next over, he made a double strike with his short balls as Rizwan ramped straight to third man and Khushdil Shah slashed straight to cover.

Pandya’s triple strike (3/25) in overs 11-15 meant Pakistan couldn’t really recover from it and crashed to 147 all out.

With the bat, Pandya hanged around with Ravindra Jadeja to bring the equation to 32 off the last three overs. By then, Pakistan were struggling as their pacers got cramps and in the 19th over, Pandya flat-batted Haris Rauf over extra-cover and got a boundary as Babar chased the ball, but couldn’t stop it from hitting the boundary rope.

He then swatted Rauf over wide long-on and brought out a short-arm jab on the last ball for a four splitting deep mid-wicket and long-on for perfection.

With seven needed off the final over, Mohammad Nawaz struck on the first ball as Jadeja was castled while going for an expansive slog. Pandya finished off the match in calm style by clobbering a six over long-on to win an absorbing contest with two balls remaining.

“I was remembering everything. I was being stretchered out of the ground, and it was the same dressing room. Yes, today I felt a sense of achievement because what I have gone through to come back and to get the opportunity… that journey is very beautiful,” said Pandya in a conversation with Jadeja in a video posted on bcci.tv on Monday.

“Well, I didn’t feel scoring seven runs would be that big a task (in the final over) because he (Nawaz) is a left-arm spinner and there were five fielders inside the circle. Had there been even 10 fielders outside the circle, it wouldn’t have made a difference in my approach, as I had to just hit over the top.”

“Having said that, I showed emotions only once during my innings when you (Jadeja) got out on the first ball of the 20th over. The pressure wasn’t there (on me). I felt the bowler was under more pressure, so I was just waiting for him to commit a mistake. The way he made the field placing, I knew he would bowl back of length and I was ready (to hit a six),” elaborated Pandya.

With Pandya now being able to deliver consistent all-round performances for India, it is a massive boost for the side ahead of the T20 World Cup in Australia in October-November.

For now, Hardik’s life came a full circle in Dubai on Sunday against Pakistan, erasing sour memories of 2018 and proving that comeback is indeed stronger than setback.

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