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Wednesday, Dec 07, 2022

Hardik Pandya: The cool cat who is India’s most valuable player in T20Is

On the night he helped India beat Pakistan in Asia Cup, Wasim Akram hailed Hardik Pandya as the best allrounder in world cricket. His childhood coach lists three recent episodes that matured Pandya.

Hardik Pandya, India vs Pakistan, Shoaib Akhtar, Ind vs Pak, Asia cupIndia's Hardik Pandya gestures after hitting the winning boundary during the T20 cricket match of Asia Cup between India and Pakistan, in Dubai, UAE. (AP)

For a while in his career, Hardik Pandya seemed like he craved attention, without knowing what it was in him that he wanted everyone to look at. Resultantly, he got the attention but not engagement. But in recent times, he has made it clear to himself and everyone that he wants the attention to be on his cricket – and now he has everyone hypnotically hooked.

“Hardik Pandya is the world’s best allrounder at the moment,” Wasim Akram raved on the night Hardik beat Pakistan with a stunning performance with the bat and the ball. All the usual Hardik signposts were visible: With the ball, the confidence to use the bouncer liberally, the hard lengths he is most comfortable with. With the bat, the careful deliberate positioning of the body and the areas he accesses and the eerie calmness, right till the end.

On the evening of the IPL final, Hardik Pandya’s childhood coach Jitendra Singh had nailed down three recent events that had accelerated Hardik’s maturity.

“The Karan Johar episode, marriage and fatherhood, and the death of his father last year. Each has its own impact, some he realises, some unconscious, but what I feel is that all the three have matured him. He didn’t want to feel negative again after that television show, he realised all he wanted was a stable happy family after marriage, and the death of his father, who he was very close to, must have matured him to become an adult in many ways. That old bachpana (childishness) has changed,” the coach had told this newspaper. The fourth, unsaid, episode which was a result of all the three was the IPL captaincy, which further pushed the man towards greater self-awareness and the need to be calmer and in control of his emotions.

“It’s a great pity about his body in the last couple of years. Just imagine how valuable he would have been and what balance he would have added to the Test team?” the coach says.

The coffee episode, the first trigger, is well known. It’s what happened immediately after that’s interesting. Much of it has been noted down on these pages before, but it’s worth recalling it on the morning after one of his most assured international T20 knocks: the day Hardik beat Pakistan.

“Coach, you will not hear any negative thing about me after this,” Jitendra Singh had recalled Pandya telling him not long after the coffee controversy. “He has held that word, his father would have been so proud today.” When Jitender Singh had reached Hardik’s home at 7.30 in the morning after he was sent back from Australia post the Karan Johar controversy, he found Hardik sitting on a sofa with his sunglasses on. “He hadn’t slept the whole night, na?,” the coach asked another person in the room. “Tension nahin lena hai (Don’t take tension). You will get back to playing for India very soon. Jo ho gaya, voh ho gaya (what’s done is done), no use worrying about it. Come tomorrow to Reliance stadium. Now, smile.”

Next day was Uttarayan, the famous kite festival in January. Everything shuts down, thousands of Gujarati necks crane up to stare at colourful kites. “I had booked a badminton court for us to play. Just to get the competitive juices and the joy of sport back in him. I wanted him to sweat out. It freed himself, usko ehsaas hua (he realised) that he is a sportsman and this is what he is born to do. Not chat shows. 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 (he is a child) and very pure at heart.”

Hardik Pandya knows he is a cool cat. At times, he lets people know it too. He hit the match-winning six, accepted a bow from Dinesh Karthik, looked up at the dressing room and signalled a ‘telephone ring’ kind of wiggle. But the coolest moment happened after the third ball of the final over. He had just moved outside leg stump and tried to pierce the off side but couldn’t beat the infield. He then looked across at Karthik, shut his eyes and nodded his head – the Indian way to say ‘ all is well, hum hain na, it’s all cool, nothing to fret’. And next ball he smashed the orb over the wide long-on boundary.

The advertising folks behind the ‘Dream Big’ series for a fantasy game cottoned on to that inherent trait in Hardik that matches the public perception, and played it up. Where all other stars in that series, from Rohit Sharma to Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant to Ravichandran Ashwin, play down, choosing overt humility in tracking their rise through the help of an individual, Hardik’s script runs bolder: he talks himself up, talks how even that other individual realised “top ka player hai”.

The coach Jitendra, who has known Hardik from when he was very young, smiles when that image is put across. “Let me put it this way. He is like a coconut, hard from outside, very soft inside. An emotional family man, who likes to be cool! I find that combination cute and cool!

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“He has no ego in that sense. Advertisements are one thing, the real Hardik is another. He has always been a good listener, has always followed good advice, he might do his thing in the end but always listens first to the people he trusts. Saw na how much he trusted Ashish Nehra with his bowling changes etc in the IPL? He is not a fool to say ‘I know everything, I will do it my way or what will people think?’ He knows and values good suggestions. As I said, he is a coconut in reality.”

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Once mocked, laughed at, dropped from the team, Hardik has bounced back in remarkable fashion. “Throughout my life, a lot of people have counted me out and put a question mark. Same thing about the auction, or retention or even my captaincy. The best way to answer is not to answer,” Hardik said in a video put up by Gujarat Titans at the end of the IPL. “All the people who said something, I don’t have to tell them to take it back. I think they themselves have taken it back.” If there were any naysayers still left, they would have taken it back too after this blockbuster performance against Pakistan.

First published on: 29-08-2022 at 06:50:28 am
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