IPL 2022: The return of Hardik Pandya | Cricket

A few days before IPL15, Hardik Pandya was on way to Bengaluru for a fitness test at the National Cricket Academy. 

Pandya hadn’t played competitive cricket after the 2021 World T20 where he drew a lot of flak following India’s early exit. Many fans and experts felt that the all-rounder wasn’t fit and that had prevented him from bowling in the opener against Pakistan. In the games he did bowl, against Afghanistan and New Zealand, Pandya was below par. 

Since a back surgery in October, 2019, Pandya played solely as a batter, for India as well as for Mumbai Indians. In the BCCI central contracts, he had been demoted from Grade A to C. 

So, debutants Gujarat Titans surprised many by naming this flamboyant player as captain. No doubt, he was an ideal T20 player: a dynamic batter and a useful pace bowler. But Pandya had no prior experience of captaincy. The demands on an IPL captain are massive: you are bouncing from one meeting to another, dealing with the owners’ expectations and meeting the franchise’s numerous sponsors’ commitments. 

Pandya has proved detractors wrong, and how! On Tuesday, Titans won the top-of-the-table clash against Lucknow Super Giants to become the first team to clinch a playoff berth. While others may have had doubts, Pandya was confident. Like Rohit Sharma, he is sure isn’t a reluctant captain. He wanted the responsibility. In a video message on the eve of the tournament opener, he said being battle-hardened, he was sure of making an impact. 

“It is a journey that will pit me sometimes against my sibling, my soulmate and many of my closest friends. And like every flight, this too may have turbulence. But hey, look at me. If I have survived being in a national storm, a ban, a gruelling back injury and more, I know what it takes,” Pandya said on a Titans social media platform.   

Solid unit 

Pandya has built Titans into a formidable unit. They lead the standings with 9 wins and look favourites to finish in the top two. And he has done it without a star-studded roster. After the auction, the discussion was mainly about the smart buys of Lucknow, Rajasthan Royals and Punjab Kings. No one was talking up Titans’ chances. 

Rashid Khan was the only star name in the Titans’ line-up. Everyone was puzzled about the balance of the franchise. Who will open with Shubman Gill? Who will be the glue between the top-order and the lower-order? As it turned out, Titans have found the perfect fit for each spot. 

Wriddhiman Saha is now their power-play specialist; Pandya has occupied the crucial No. 4 spot and is playing the role to perfection; new faces Abhinav Manohar and Sai Sudharsan have chipped in with valuable contributions in the middle-order and David Miller and Rahul Tewatia have been used brilliantly as finishers, the plan being to give them enough overs to settle down at No. 5 and No. 6 and then explode. 

Captaincy is all about getting the best out of the players. Pandya is excelling in that. As a leader, his easy-going style has shone through. Gill, Saha, Rahul and Miller are playing their best cricket. Manohar and Sudharsan have proved their effectiveness. Veterans Mohammed Shami and Lockie Ferguson are in their element. Ace leg-spinner Khan didn’t start well but has come into his own towards the business end. 

And the Baroda all-rounder has led from the front, aggregating 344 runs in 11 games at a strike rate of 131.80 with three half-centuries. More importantly, in four games he bowled his full quota. There was a break after the April 14th game against Rajasthan Royals, before bowling one over on Tuesday. 

Key to him again being the feared T20 player he was known as has been fitness. After the World Cup, Pandya has trained with single-mindedness. He stayed in Baroda and worked with a personal trainer and brother Krunal. He had set his own goals and till they were reached, Pandya he didn’t want to be considered for India. He wanted to be at his peak for the T20 World Cup in October-November and regain his position as India’s No. 1 all-rounder. 

Those close to him say with marriage and parenthood he has matured, which has helped him take the career-lows in his stride. 

Following Dhoni’s mantra

After being named captain, Pandya had mentioned how he looked up to MS Dhoni for inspiration. As the tournament progressed, he has evolved as leader. In the earlier games there were occasions when he would let frustration show even with senior players such as Shami and Miller. He appears calmer now. 

“My way of leadership is to set examples, to set culture, to set attitude which the team wants to play with. So, my way of leadership is taking the team along. My philosophy isn’t too complicated. You have to make sure the environment is nice and the players are feeling at home and once everyone gets comfortable, they realise their potential,” Pandya said. 

Tactically too, Pandya has been astute. Of their three defeats in 12 games, only once were they were comprehensively beaten, against Punjab Kings by eight wickets. In T20, you need to win close games and Titans’ last-over wins this season has included one off the last ball (Punjab), with one ball left (Chennai), two balls left (Lucknow) and by eight runs against Kolkata. 

The Titans skipper proved himself early in the tournament. In their second match, against Delhi Capitals, defending a total of 171, the way Pandya marshalled bowling resources towards the end was brilliant. At the start of the 15th over, Capitals were 118/4 with Rishabh Pant set on 43 off 28 balls. With Capitals needing 54 runs from 36 balls, the pressure was on Pandya. His move to bring on Lockie Ferguson proved game-changer. The fast bowler got Pant first ball and the dangerous Axar Patel at the end of the over. 

When they needed 30 from 18 balls, he brought on Mohammed Shami who got two wickets in two balls, including the dangerous Rovman Powell who was well set on 20 off 12 balls. With 27 off 12 balls, Pandya bowled and conceded just three to help Titans win by 14 runs. 

On IPL debut, versus Lucknow Super Giants, Pandya made instant impact through Shami. Sensing that his pace spearhead was on song on a lively Wankhede Stadium track, he bowled Shami three overs on the trot. Shami grabbed three wickets–KL Rahul first ball, Quinton de Kock in the second over and Manish Pandey in the fifth. The early blows helped to restrict Lucknow to 158/6 which Titans chased with Pandya at No. 4 absorbing the early pressure to build the platform with an innings of 33 off 28 balls. 

Another example of Pandya’s adept marshalling of resources was seen against Kolkata Knight Riders on April 23. Batting first, Titans were clearly 10-12 runs short when they posted 156/9. But they fought back to restrict KKR to 148/8 which is one of the lowest scores defended in the tournament. To keep up the pressure, Pandya took a chance by using his main bowlers in the middle overs. By the 18th over of the innings, Rashid Khan, Ferguson and Shami had finished their quota. He took a gamble on the inexperienced Yash Dayal and Alzarri Joseph to bowl the final two. The young bowlers lived up to the task, defending 29. Dayal conceded just 11, while Joseph gave 9 runs in the 20th. 

Another quality which has shone through is that he hasn’t hesitated to experiment, challenge the team. Titans have developed a reputation as chase masters but when he won the toss against Punjab Kings on May 3, Pandya opted to bat. The plan backfired and Titans were routed. Pandya didn’t give up on the idea though. Against LSG, in Titans’ last game, he again experimented with batting first this time defending 144/4. 

After losing their game against Mumbai Indians on Friday, when they failed to close out from an advantageous position, there was a fear of losing momentum. Against LSG on Tuesday, Pandya demanded and got ruthlessness from his players. 

“I think all the games that we’ve won, we were always under pressure. The last game (against Mumbai) was the only game that we were ahead and we knew with the kind of batters that we have we would finish it off. But it did not happen,” said Pandya. “That was the talk of the group. Even in this game when they were eight down, I said, ‘let’s be ruthless … If it’s not over, it’s not over. So let’s make sure we finish it. If they’re down, let’s keep them down, get this done and relax post-game’.” 

With the 2022 T20 World Cup scheduled in Australia in October and November, Pandya looks good to bounce back from the setback of the last edition.

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