“Match toh finish kar, then enjoy” (Finish the game first!),” Hardik Pandya reveals what he told Rishabh Pant

Hardik Pandya was jabbering through the partnership. So was Rishabh Pant. At times, they would gesture at each other too. What were the two most exciting middle-order batsmen in world cricket talking about after India had lost four wickets in the chase?

“I was just repeating the same thing and even told him that I am repeating it too much!” Hardik Pandya would tell at the end of a fabulous partnership that helped India seal the ODI series against England.

What was it though? “Let’s have a partnership, take the match as close as possible, and finish the match.If you then want to enjoy (Pandya smiles), enjoy (“phir tujhe enjoy karna hai to kar le”). Match toh close kar! (Finish the match first!),” Pandya revealed.

“And then he opened up (later on in the innings). Everyone knows when Rishabh starts hitting, you sit down and say okay you bat! (Hum baith jaate hain, chalo aap khelo!)

It’s as if all they had to do was to just decide that they have to stay there; the match will be done. England’s bowlers didn’t matter, the target didn’t matter, the pressure of a decider didn’t matter.

And Pandya was right, of course. Still, the confidence was something. Sample how he frames it.

“The talent that he has and the talent that I perhaps have – there was no need to take any risks at that stage. Without any risks, we could score those runs as there were not many runs to get. The only way England could come back is if we lose back-to-back wickets.”

Unusually for Pandya, he added that ‘perhaps’ in the middle, or rather the Hindi word ‘shayad’ in there. He usually doesn’t. False modesty isn’t his thing. That’s so 1980’s.

The main point is this: These guys know they have the talent to chase, and all they had to do was to stay in there to “finish” the game. That “finish toh kar” as an urge, a coaxing, a dare, a challenge sums up what was required to Pant in the best way possible.

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For the last two years, Pant has been on another planet, stringing moments and knocks to savour hat mortals would be thrilled if they can get it over a full career. That final fall in the Adelaide Test on the final day, and the long face he carried with him as he trudged to the pavilion told a story. The Brisbane series-clinching ton, where he carefully avoided hitting Nathan Lyon over covers, showing that the eye of the storm is indeed calm in the centre. It can seem a mayhem, and it is when Pant goes, but that brain is ticking.

“So again and again, I was just repeating one thing,” Pandya would say. “He did exactly that. Initially, when I went in, he got a bit stuck, but the flow developed in partnership.”

These two have a different definition for getting stuck too. At times, it can be two balls of no runs.

“Koi nahi, Rishabh. Koi nahi.” The comforting message came from Pandya. Pant had now faced two deliveries without putting runs on the board. Too long for his cricket. Pandya at the other end knew his partner, his methods, and the fact that he was itching to go big. A verbal tap on the shoulders was all that he needed.

Criticism at the world cup semifinal

Only three years back, the duo had been criticized for their cricket at the same venue, Old Trafford. Chasing 240, India were 24/4 at the end of the powerplay when Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya converged in the middle for the World Cup semi final against New Zealand. Their stay together lasted for only 77 balls, adding only 47 runs to India’s total. Their dismissals? Oh, they’d hit the Indian nerves hard for days to come. A 21-year old Pant couldn’t hold himself from getting down on the back knee and trying to clear the long boundary over midwicket. A 25-year old Pandya was unable to stop himself from attempting a slog sweep leading to a top edge and eventually, a catch at the midwicket. Both crumbled under the rising asking rate.

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Cut to Sunday, July 17. India were 188 runs short of their target and four wickets less when the two met again in the middle at Old Trafford. In a series decider ODI against the world champions. Fitting that a partnership that had ended at the score of 71 in 2019, began at 72. Like a new chapter or perhaps a new book. 24-year old Pant and the 28-year old Pandya.

India’s Hardik Pandya, left, and India’s Rishabh Pant, touch gloves during the third one day international cricket match between England and India at Emirates Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester, England, Sunday. (AP)

From captaining their IPL franchise’s to captaining India, Pant and Pandya have tasted leadership and become more seasoned in the game since that fateful July evening three years back. A game they still prefer playing their way,.

5.62 runs required was a requirement matched up with the two hitting a total of 19 boundaries across the 19.1 overs they batted together. Some would say they had a method to their madness but it was more a case of method and madness. At certain stages of the innings the duo seemed calm and composed, at others just a couple of ruthless dudes scoring for fun. Calm and chaos.

Reece Topley had got the better of nine Indian batters, the likes of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli using that left arm pacer to right handed batter angle advantage over the wicket. Ideally, a left hander facing more of the left armer would’ve been the simple answer. But with Pant taking his time to get to score ticking, Pandya decided to go after England’s best bowler. His answer to Topley moving the ball away was in taking two steps to his right, outside the off-stump to be in a better position to connect with the ball moving away. Like all good authoritarians, Pandya shut off the opposition’s best option and left them searching for answers elsewhere. His was a fifty, much like his maiden 4fer, that brought his team back into the game.

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Pandya’s partner, India’s number 17, who had displayed uncharacteristic sense of no urgency for most part of his innings, upped the madness ante towards the end. Targeting Craig Overton in his second spell was only fair given the length and width that was on offer. What Pant did to David Willey however, in the dying embers of the chase was violence. One could’ve noticed the signs in the six he hit off the pacer in the 40th over of the chase while batting at 89. Bending his back knee and smoking it over deep mid-wicket. A shot he had failed to execute against Mitchell Santner, a spinner, at the same end of this very ground, in that match against New Zealand.

The five fours in five different directions of the ground was just Rishabh being Rishabh. A flat-batted hard shot down at long-off, a short ball pulled towards square leg, a hammer of a cover-drive, a paddle to fine leg and a whack down the ground later, he still had the audacity to take a single off the last ball? Only so that he could make a point? To reverse sweep off Joe Root and finish the India tour of England with the ODI series win. Such calmness. Such chaos.

“It’s important (middle order getting runs),” Pandya would say. “The management also gets a relief that the middle order is confident and can get. First the top three used to get runs, and we would not get many opportunities. There was not much experience for the middle order but now the middle order is coming and thinking I am going to cement my place here. Then when the top order performs wah hi wah hai! (It will be wow, too cool!)”

Pant was the player of the match. Pandya was the player of the series. Together, they let every blade of the grass at Old Trafford know that they took India across the line in a crunch ODI match, a year before the next World Cup against the defending champions. 2019 felt far off. 2023, closer.

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