Not long after the caffeinated controversy on a Karan Johar show and after being dragged to practice, Hardik Pandya told his childhood coach Jitender Singh in Vadodara, “Coach, you won’t hear anything negative about me after this”.
“He kept his word, his father would have been so proud today,” coach Jeetubhai told this newspaper on the afternoon of the big IPL final.
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A few hours later, at the glittering Narendra Modi Stadium, bustling with more than 1,000 Gujarat Titan supporters, Hardik led GT to a famous triumph as they chased 131 with seven wickets in hand. Hardik had chosen the most important game of the tournament to make an important mark – he couldn’t easily bowl his odds of 4 overs, he still had the trick to disable an entire batting side. His victims that day were Jos Butler, Sanju Samson and Shimron Hetmyer – the brawn, brains and riot of the royals of Rajasthan. And would calmly guard the chase after a few early wickets with a responsible 34 to drive the point further home.
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For a while in his career, Pandya seemed to crave attention, not knowing what was inside him for everyone to see. As a result, he got the attention but no engagement. But lately he’s made it clear to himself and everyone else that he wants to draw attention to his cricket — and now he’s got everyone hypnotically hooked.
When the Baroda boy first burst onto the international stage, fans wished he were the pace bowling all-rounder that India has been craving since Kapil Dev. At this IPL, Hardik showed that he could win games with bat and ball at least in the shortest format of the game and also be the Kapil-like inspirational leader. Who would have thought after the auction that Hardik could lead this group of no-hoppers to the title in their debut season.
Jeetubhai recalls the first time he tried to make Hardik captain just after the second IPL season. “I made him captain of the Reliance team. I told him it’s time to develop that aspect.” What happened? The coach laughs. “Hardik wasn’t that enthusiastic at the time. “Sir, I don’t want any of this now. I want to focus on my hitting and bowling. So I left him alone, but I just wanted that thought to run in the background.”
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When did the tide turn? “Sometimes when they’re young they think captaincy is too much responsibility, or they think it’s the boss and all that coolness. At one point he realized it came naturally to him as it involved decision making, cricket thinking, strategy and supporting fellow players to be themselves.
“With what he’s been through and how the other people have seen him and made fun of him at times, he knows exactly what to do with other players like him. He knows how very powerful it can be to support them to be themselves,” says the trainer. “I wasn’t surprised that he supported David Miller the way he did.”
The trainer identifies three recent events that have quickly matured Hardik. “The Karan Johar episode, marriage and fatherhood and his father’s death last year. Each has its own impact, some recognizable, some unconscious, but I feel all three have matured it. Not wanting to feel negative again after that TV show, he realized that all he wanted was a stable, happy family after marriage, and the death of his father, who he was very close to, must have made him grow up to become many possibilities. That old bachpana (childhood) has changed.”
The promoters behind the ‘Dream Big’ series of fantasy games have appropriated and hyped Hardik’s innate trait that fits the public perception. Where all the other stars in this series, from Rohit Sharma to Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant to Ravichandran Ashwin, downplay and choose open humility to pursue their rise with the help of a single person, Hardik’s script is bolder: He hypes himself up, talks about how even this other person realized “top ka player hai”.
Jeetubhai, who has known Hardik since he was little, smiles when presented with this picture. “Let me put it this way. He’s like a coconut, hard on the outside, very soft on the inside. An emotional family guy who likes to be cool! I think the combination is cute and cool!”
It takes you to another side of Hardik. During his time as captain he has spoken about how he and bowling coach Ashish Nehra are like two peas in a pod when it comes to cricket matters. Nehra was often seen advising him on bowling changes from the sidelines during games. ‘Pass Rashid another’, ‘Now bring an extra fast bowler’. Hardik not only did not regret it, but actively sought and accepted such advice.
“He has no ego in that sense. Advertising is one thing, the real Hardik is another. He’s always been a good listener, he’s always taken good advice, he might end up doing his thing, but he always listens first to people he trusts. And he trusts Nehra a lot. He’s no fool when he says, “I know everything, I do it my way, or what will people think?” He knows and appreciates good suggestions, says Jeetubhai. “Like I said, he’s actually a coconut.”
Some journalists who were at Wankhede Stadium for a training session of the Mumbai Indians a few years ago can confirm this. Something had happened, it wasn’t clear what had happened, but suddenly Hardik seemed desperate. Then-MI head coach Ricky Ponting came over, patted him on the back, spent a lot of time comforting, then a few other older players came over too.
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After a while, Hardik got up, wiped away the tears and finally shrugged, whatever was bothering him, put on a pair of sunglasses, took a look at the media group and continued his cool walk. There he was, in public, overcoming a gentle personal moment with aplomb.
Which brings you to his bowling which was one of the reasons why he hasn’t been able to get into the Indian team lately as he hasn’t been doing much of it after being injured. The coach recalls a training session earlier this year when the going got tough.
“One day something made me say to him, ‘Okay, now I’m going to hit your bowling.’ He agreed that he would not bowl bouncers. I think he thought he could sort me out easily. I had decided to take on him, basically swinging the bat around and happily making contact on many occasions. He was getting angrier by the minute! All of a sudden he bowled a bouncer and that shook me. I hit again, he threw another bouncer and I told him, ‘Arre! you told me you won’t roll a bouncer; just because you get hit doesn’t make you take it?! I just wanted to show that in bowling you have to work harder. The work is not done yet.’ He has it. Recently he also showed me this video from this internet session and we had a lot of fun.”
Turn the corner
When Jitender Singh arrived at Hardik’s home at 7.30am when he was being sent back from Australia following the Karan Johar controversy, he found his old ward sitting on a sofa in his sunglasses. “He hasn’t slept all night, has he?” the trainer asked another person in the room. “Tension nahin lena hai (Don’t take tension). You will be playing for India again very soon. Jo ho gaya, voh ho gaya (What’s done is done), there’s no use worrying about it. Come to Reliance Stadium tomorrow. Now smile.”
The next day was Uttarayan, the famous kite festival in January. Everything switches off, thousands of Gujarati crane their necks and stare at colorful kites. “I booked a badminton court for us to play on. Just to get his competitive juices and joy back in him. I wanted him to sweat. It liberated him, usko ehsaas hua (he realized) that he is an athlete and that he was born to be. No chat shows.
I saw that he was upset about what had happened. i know him well He’s a very emotional boy. Don’t go by his dress and his necklaces and the style icon he appears to be. Bachcha hai (he is a child) and very pure in heart.”
Once taunted, laughed at, kicked off the team, Hardik has made a remarkable recovery. “Throughout my life, a lot of people have counted me out and put a question mark. The same goes for auction, retention, or even my captaincy. The best way to answer is not to answer,” says Hardik in the GT video. “All the people who said something, I don’t have to tell them to take it back. I think they took it back themselves.”