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Munaf Patel remembers the days he played with Hardik Pandya in the Baroda Ranji team. Any task thrown at the youngster would be treated as a challenge, an attitude that has led to Pandya’s meteoric rise in a relatively short period.
Like Pandya’s promotion to No.4 in Indore on Sunday, when he was tasked to take down the Aussie left-arm spinner Ashton Agar, a task he performed with aplomb, hitting him for four sixes, to set up India’s series-clinching win.
Others may be surprised at Pandya’s versatility and adaptability to various role, but Munaf is not. The Baroda pacer credits Pandya’s attitude as the vital ingredient in his success.
“He is a soldier, joh aadesh doge woh karega. Sochega nahi. (He will follow orders without thinking.) That is why he will be always be the favourite of any captain or any team. And then there is his attitude. He keeps challenging himself every time. Be in the nets or match. He wants to be better than the others. At the same time he is challenging everyone. The better your attitude, the more confidence you gain. The more matches you play, the more confidence you will get. Pandya’s attitude is giving him the results,” Patel said.
Pandya’s big hitting has made the vital difference in the ongoing series, but Munaf remembers the days in the nets and those Ranji sessions sitting in dressing room. There was the same desire to improve and learn more about the craft. Hardik always had a question ready.
“He will come one day and say, ‘let’s see who will bowl more balls in the nets today’. One day, he will throw a challenge – who will have a better economy rate in bowling. During matches, he will keep asking, Yeh kaise kiya, ab kaunsa ball daloon. Aap hote too kya karte (how did you do that, which delivery to bowl now, What would you have done in this situation?” Munaf says.
His batting, on the other hand, is more natural, especially his six-hitting ability. His childhood coach Kiran More says Pandya is God-gifted.
“Look at the way the ball travels when he hits it. I can only recall Virender Sehwag. He had such kind of gift. They are God-gifted players, everyone can’t have such bat swing,” More says.
After his match-winning innings on Sunday, Pandya was asked whether he had begun to hit sixes so cleanly only now. His answer only brought to the fore his innate self-belief. The all-rounder quipped:
“Chhakke toh pehle bhi marta tha but it’s just ke ab higher level pe mar raha hoon (I used to hit sixes earlier too, but now am doing so at a higher level of cricket).”
Of late, Pandya has also shown the capability to rein in his instinct. He has been reading situation better before taking a call on whether to go after the bowlers.
The Dravid influence
And like most young cricketers, Pandya has also credited Rahul Dravid for the transformation, during an India A tour.
“I still remember when I got out a couple of times in the one-dayers, he used to ask me to come and sit next to him and tell me, ‘Hardik, you are the one guy who has the talent to represent India, so you need to express yourself and take charge of situations.’ I still remember I ran myself out in the league game against Australia A. We needed some 23 off 19 balls then, and I thought this will be easy, but then we lost by 1 run. He was not angry,” he had earlier recollected. “He just said that, ‘You should start finishing games. That’s what you’ll be doing for India.” And I thought if Rahul Dravid has this belief in me, I should also start believing that I can finish games,” Pandya added.
Not that self-belief was ever lacking in the wiry all-rounder from a humble lower middle-class family. This had become evident during a Ranji Trophy game between Baroda and Mumbai, when Pandya walked towards a small shanty to meet a lone journalist sitting in the press box. He wanted to know, can he be the number seven player the Indian team was looking for?
It was October 2015 and Pandya had only one decent Indian Premier League season behind him. Three months later, he found himself in the Indian team in Australia to play three T20 games and hasn’t looked back since.
It’s been only two years, but the growth has been as spontaneous as phenomenal. And as the trajectory so far indicates, it is nowhere near its peak yet.