Wise old school teachers had a way to deal with the naughty trouble makers. They would make them the class prefect. By burdening their shoulders with responsibility, making the devil’s workshop in their heads busy, everyone benefitted, the class room became a better place of learning. That’s the most relatable explanation to understand the Hardik Pandya transformation. For years now the discovery of the rare pace all-rounder of high quality was received with scepticism.
Hardik too didn’t help his own cause. He went to places he could have avoided, said things that he shouldn’t have. His many injuries, reluctance to play Tests, early success in the Indian Premier League saw him getting slotted as someone who allegedly preferred franchise cricket to playing for the country.
His love for everything West Indian made him a subject of memes. His unconventional taste too didn’t help. India wasn’t used to its cricketing icons turning up in chunky blingy jewelry and rapper gear. Hardik was the odd one in most dressing rooms.
It was Mumbai Indians that first spotted him and groomed him into a star. They invested in him, gave him his due but still he was just one among the boys. But for MI his fabric wasn’t quite the captaincy material. Hardik was Rohit Sharma’s Man Friday but not quite his deputy. Even when he was injured, it was Kieron Pollard who got the captain’s band.
The Mumbai Indians can’t be faulted for failing to recognise the leadership potential of their MVP. Institutions at times fail to see generals in the foot soldiers they hire at entry level. Having watched them closely for a long time, they are more aware of their shortcomings. And even if they evolve with time, those first impressions are not easy to wipe out.
When he got his India break in 2016, he didn’t quite get direct entry into the team’s inner core of decision makers. Again there were valid reasons. Rather unfairly, as is the case with most lower order hard-hitters, he wasn’t seen as a master strategist. When weapons were being distributed to the batting unit, Hardik would get the sledgehammer not the sword.
As a bowler he was brought into attack as first-change. He was his captain’s enforcer. Bowlers, according to cricket’s unwritten rule, rarely get the reins of the team. Cricket also has a complicated caste system, it has sub-divisions too.
Had Hardik been a crafty swing bowler, he might have been in the captaincy race. Being a hit-the-deck 140 kph pacer is a handicap in job interviews for top jobs. Cricket has its biases, like the pinch-hitters, those who bounce the ball are the game’s working class. Jasprit Bumrah being an exception.
In his early days playing white-ball international cricket for India, Hardik was the baby of the team, far away from the top of the pyramid where MS Dhoni sat. There was Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Even Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra had not retired.
Far from being the future captain, he was the class jester. Team mates would openly make fun of the outlandish fashion sense and taste in music. In one of his interviews, Kohli was asked about the songs played in the dressing room. He would say that Hardik loves playing English songs but he hardly understands the lyrics.
How far has Hardik come from those days. Married to a Serbian, English is the common language for the couple. In his media interactions, he stands out with his honesty and articulation. Those who have watched his captaincy see a rare conviction to back his bold ideas.
Gujarat Titans wasn’t quite the Galatico of this season’s IPL but Hardik never complained. He utilised the limited resources that he had. With only the experience of leading u-19 Baroda to fall back on, the odds of Hardik sparkling in his captaincy debut were slim.
But there was a flip side. Hardik for the first time in his life was being given an important responsibility. He was put in charge of the team. The fate of the entire dressing room was put in his hands. Gujarat Titans had invested in a captain who the world never thought had leadership skills. Such favours can have a magical impact, it can make men walk an extra mile and scale new heights.
For Hardik, the Titans captaincy was a chance to earn the respect of his peers. He didn’t want to get it wrong. No other captain would have been that hungry to lift the silverware. But this didn’t make Hardik timid. He didn’t freeze when the spotlight was placed on him. And that has been his biggest quality. It’s what makes him the game’s reputed finisher. Hardik the captain wasn’t afraid to express himself, he wanted to stamp his personality on his captaincy approach.
Go back to the last IPL and see how he planned the wicket of KL Rahul. Knowing he was struggling against raw pace and bounce, Hardik gave Mohammad Shami his third straight over. In that 9th over of the innings, he kept both the mid-on and mid-off in the circle. It was seen as a gamble. The ploy worked and Rahul was out. Had the move misfired the pundits would have questioned his captaincy.
Hardik has endured so much in his short cricketing life, he isn’t worried about criticism. He’s been written off several times in his journey from a bits and pieces Baroda cricketer to world cricket’s premier finisher. The other day he won a game against Pakistan with a last over six. His ‘Cool Nod’ in the days to come might turn out to be a treasured NFT. It’s almost like Kobe’s Mike Drop moment. Some see a Virat in him, others insist he is Dhoni-like. Imagine, there used to be a cackle of laughter when he would be called the Next Kapil Dev.
Whoever at Gujarat Titans decided to designate him the captain needs to be given an important decision-making role in Indian cricket.
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National Sports Editor
The Indian Express