The evening of May 1 could well have ended Krunal Pandya’s involvement in IPL 10. A freak injury at point, falling over the ball, had jammed his hip. A year ago, it would well have been the end of his campaign. Krunal had impressed but wasn’t such a bigwig in the scheme of things for Mumbai. This time, though, it was different. According to a member of the MI support staff, the team management began to worry. A call was made out to the miracle healer Eliyantha White in Sri Lanka, the man who has treated the likes of Lasith Malinga and Sachin Tendulkar in the past. Come, heal, and get our man fit.
There was a snag though. White couldn’t get the visa in time. The management decided to fly Krunal and their physician to Colombo in a chartered flight. Everything was ready when White called from Colombo saying he had got the visa and would fly to India. All was well with the Mumbai Indians’ world. Krunal’s case sums up the victorious campaign. It wasn’t just the big names — the Rohits, Pollards and Malingas — who won them the title but the contributions from their (relatively) lesser-known players such as Krunal, Nitish Rana, Karn Sharma who shed their anonymous tag in some style. It’s a cliché with most successful sporting teams but its a cliché that has to come true for teams to win a tournament.
Among all of them though, it was Krunal who was the breakout player of this campaign. Back in December 2015, he was in the stands at Wankhede Stadium to watch his younger brother’s IPL debut. A year later, even as he took rapid strides within the Mumbai Indians camp, he was still hyphenated with his brother. You couldn’t think of him without thinking of the other. Almost destined to be mentioned in a single breath. Until this year, when he has de-hyphenated himself with a string of stellar performances. Hardik has the shots and the pace along with razzmatazz of the personality to catch everyone’s eyes, but it’s Krunal whose evolution is almost staggering. Nothing in his left-arm spin suggests anything special, and that’s obviously one of the key deceptions he uses to trap the batsmen. It’s the cricketing brain that stands out. There was this game in last year’s IPL against Bangalore when he took out both Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers in the same over that made one sit up and take a good long look at him. Kohli’s dismissal was fine, one of those things that can happen, but it’s the way he snared de Villiers that demanded notice.
Until then, it had seemed Krunal would just fire in his left-arm deliveries with varying pace but a bowler who would live on unforced errors at best. The smart brain though had deduced that de Villiers won’t go for any big shot as he is not only new to the crease but Kohli had just got out. Still, it’s de Villiers we talking about. But Krunal was confident. “I gambled a bit, bowled a flighted delivery allowing him to come forward and drive the ball and that’s what got him in the end,” he would later say. De Villiers stumbled out and was stumped.
It was the coming-of-age moment for Krunal the bowler in many ways. Since then, we have seen him deploy all sorts of tweaks in his art: the side-arm hustle where he almost sprays the ball from an angle, the slower ones that he sends the ball from palms, and above all a great awareness of his limitations. He rarely over-extends himself, settling on dot-balls, creating flat deliveries, but knows the moment to attack with his other variations. And he is a bowler who Mumbai Indians are happy to use with the new ball to the end overs as they know he would be up for any challenge.
The same grit comes through in his batting as well. Here too, he has been used from No 3. to 6, in different match situations. He can attack, he can rotate strike, and he is almost nerveless. He doesn’t loft, he slugs. He doesn’t drive, he bunts, and just as impression builds that he can heave and slug, he would ease into a sizzling square-drive or muscle a ball over covers. Consider the final. Even as the rest were choking up, he assessed the situation, pitched himself in and dealt in singles and twos. As the overs crept up, he opened up his shoulders. No one on that night was able to hit the slower cutters from Jaydev Unadkat.
The cutters were gripping on the surface and were almost holding up. But Krunal waited on the ball that fraction longer and slugged him for a big six over long-off. Again an improvement from the last year or so where his own coach Jitender Singh was of the opinion that Krunal needed to work on the big shots. “He needs to work more on clearing the boundaries,” was the coach’s view then. And Krunal has done it.
It’s something we have now come to expect from his hard-working and intelligent cricketer. There are some cricketers who don’t allow the two traits to overlap. Krunal has combined the two, his cricketing intelligence has piggybacked on hard work, and the result is there for all to see. A day after the IPL triumph, Rohit Sharma was lavish in his praise of Krunal. “Krunal understands his game very well,” said Sharma. “Whenever we ask him to bat at 4, 5, 6, 7, he has batted at various positions, he has never looked out of the comfort zone. He has always adapted to the situation. He has got a bright future. He is a brilliant bowler, very sharp, thinks about his bowling a lot. Great prospect for Indian cricket.”
From self-awareness, to the thought put in his bowling, to the improvement in his batting, and above all, the tenacity of the mind, Krunal Pandya has come a long way in the shortest possible time.
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