It’s 7.30 am and Hardik Pandya is sitting on a sofa at home with his sunglasses on. It’s the morning after he had been sent back to India, banned for his comments on the Karan Johar show. Jitendra Singh, his childhood coach, drops in, sees the shades, and leans towards another person there. “He hasn’t slept the whole night, na?” Pandya hadn’t. Jeetubhai, as he was known, indulges in some small talk and takes Pandya to a corner.
“Tension nahin lena hai. You believe in me, na? You will get back to playing for India very soon. Jo ho gaya, voh ho gaya, no use worrying about it. Come tomorrow to Reliance stadium. Now, smile.” Pandya’s lips curl weakly.
Next day was Uttarayan, the famous kite festival in January. Everything shuts down, thousands of Gujarati necks crane up staring at colourful kites. However, Jeetubhai had arranged a small session in a corner of the stadium. “I made sure no one else knew – certainly not you press waale!” he recalls. It wasn’t the cricketing nets but the badminton court that he had the keys for.
“Chalo, let’s play,” and Pandya started to slowly get into it. Soon, sweat began to pour out as he immersed himself. “That’s what I wanted. We used to play badminton years before – the joy, the sweat. I wanted him to sweat out. He freed him, usko ehsaas hua that he is a sportsman and this is what he is born to do. Not chat shows.”
Jeetubhai’s home-grown wisdom once again did the trick. “In three days, I knew he was back to normal, especially when he batted on that third morning at the nets. The way he was hitting the ball, my only thought was that he should be back in the Indian team soon.”
He called Pandya for another chat. “Look, I can feel it. This time when you get back to the Indian team, you are going to star. I can feel good times are just round the corner. Forget what happened.” There was no need to speak about the chat show at all. “I saw that he was upset about what happened. I know him well. He is a very emotional boy. Don’t go by his dress and chains, and the style icon he seems to be. Bachcha hai and very pure at heart.”
It wasn’t the first time Jeetubhai had seen Pandya emotional. In Mumbai, after the semifinal loss against West Indies in the 2016 ICC World T20, Pandya had called his coach to his hotel room. “Please stay with me tonight. Don’t say no.” The pair kept talking for a while. Pandya broke down now and then, and eventually Jeetubhai dozed off and woke up to see the tired sleep-deprived eyes.
A scene from another time, years ago. Pandya is sprawled on a bed. He is staring at his phone, presumably, which is live-streaming the scenes from his room. One of the Facebook chats with fans he used to conduct in years gone by. For a minute, nothing happens in the video. Not a word said. Suddenly, he says “I am waiting for your comments”.
Shortly, he starts mumbling out questions, nothing interests him. This goes on for 10 minutes. He answers a few in the mumbling-pilot style tone. His voice perks up suddenly when he says: “Be yourself, that’s how you can be stylish”. He walks around with a swag and the Pandya show ends.
All the swag and “Rockstar”, as his IPL team-mate Aiden Blizzard nicknamed him after watching him dance, has meant some fans are unaware of his tough childhood. Pandya’s father Himanshu, who had taken the five-year old boy to former India cricketer Kiran More’s camp, suffered a hit in his business and the family fortunes plunged.
“My brother and I used to get Maggi for Rs 5 and used to request the gardener to give us hot water and we used to prepare and eat it at the ground for lunch and breakfast, 365 days non-stop. Din bhar ground pe pada rehta tha. Bahar udhari bahut ho gayi thi, jitna aata woh turant chala jata. Forget 10 rupees, we used to struggle for even five,” Pandya had told this newspaper.
“Don’t go by his bad-boy image. He is like a coconut: hard outside, soft inside,” says Jitendra. He should know. Once, when he was at Baroda nets, Pandya came to see him. This was just after a tour of West Indies. Pandya whisked him in his car that stopped at a car showroom.
“Tu kya soch raha hai? What are you doing? Hope you aren’t going to do what I think you are?” the coach said. Pandya replied, “Please don’t say no, sir, You have to accept it,” and gave the keys to a Celerio.
Another tale now. Pandya hears Jitendra’s mother was unwell at hospital and landed up there. “He told me that he was getting a payment of 50 lakh from IPL and that I should take it. I had to tell him to shut up and go!”
Jeetubhai remembers when he first saw Pandya take the now-familiar off-stump guard from where he explodes. “He has that cricketing intelligence. With his batting, he realised the need to create angles. He also stands deep in the crease with that guard – he told me that he doesn’t have to worry about yorkers and bouncers.
It’s not so easy to get that yorker at the base of stumps – as he is almost by the stumps, and with bouncers, because he is so back he gets extra time and the bowlers try to pitch the ball fuller for the bouncer to trouble his head, but it’s not easy to get the ball to bounce from a fuller length. If they bang it short, middle of the pitch, because he is back, it almost sits up and he has more time to cut and pull. I only told him, just have a method to keep out the full balls on middle and leg.”
That is the essence of Pandya’s big hitting. He is just working the angles. He isn’t slogging. That’s why when a bowler hurls the ball almost yorker-length well outside off-stump, he stays calm, crouches, and steers it through backward point.
But it’s his bowling that would have settled a few nerves in the fans, if not in his team-mates. It’s the thinking behind it that stands out, more than anything he does with the ball.
What do we recall from his bowling? Leg-cutter? Outswing, inswing? Nope, not yet, but the lengths, the lines, the variations, and the little deviations – working the angles, basically.
The moment that made one sit up and take notice came after he bled 19 runs in his second over to Aaron Finch and David Warner last week. His pre-game plans lay tattered. We know he likes to bang in a couple to check the bounce and settles on back of a length and tries to hit it with some regularity. That plan was now gone. He had to do something else. Pandya worked the angles, again, switching from over the stumps to around it, in the same over. He moved closer to the stumps and wider. He moved from back of a length to fuller.
Of late, he has been learning how to work the angles at the crease. He does bowl the slow cutters, too. But seldom has he combined all that as effectively, mixing and matching them, as he did against Australia. To Warner, who was tied down when the ball cuts in from a length towards middle and leg, he dinked the ball in. Later, to Steve Smith, he pinged the off-stump line on a length. To Usman Khawaja, he served two lengths – bouncers and slow-cutters from back of a length. Similarly, against Pakistan, he kept it tight, occasionally surprising them with the bounce he got. “Remember he used to be a leg-spinner before. He only started bowling pace at the age of 18. And he is still learning. He is working hard at it and can improve a lot. I am confident that he will because he wants it desperately,” Jeetubhai says.
Pandya is the man live streaming his narcissistic mutterings, he is the one who cried and couldn’t sleep after an Indian loss, the one who struggled for money, and one who shares stuff in a chat show thinking it was very cool, and the one who gifts a car to his coach. Fans and critics have a version of Pandya to admire or hate, the Indian team has one to like, his family and coach have a version to love. Of course, he is soon bound to do something to once again make us unsure of what to make of him.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Now only his bat does the talking’.