“I owe a lot to the IPL as it has changed my cricket and my life,” Hardik Pandya had told this writer in December 2016 after being selected for the first time in the Indian team on a tour of Australia. In the last half-a-dozen years, Pandya has literally seen it all, both on and off the field. It may be a cliché but there is no better word than rollercoaster to describe the metamorphosis of the Baroda all-rounder. The Mumbai Indians which believed in him when he was nobody, chose not to retain him for the IPL 2022 and the 28-year-old was instantly grabbed by a new franchise from his home state, Gujarat. And if any Bollywood director is looking for a new biopic on a cricketer, they shouldn’t waste much time. Pandya’s stunning display as the new captain cool is indeed a fairy tale. Unsurprisingly, in Pandya’s life, once again the finest thing has happened in the biggest T20 league in the world, which of course is the Indian Premier League.
The now-familiar calmness and incredible self-assuredness which has been the focal point of Pandya 2.0 was in fact pretty evident even from the time when he was not a certainty in the Baroda Ranji side. “Apna time kab aayge” were the first words I heard from him in the winter of Delhi in 2015. The phrasing of the words might seem a tad bit exaggerated, but honestly, the content of his reply was exactly the same. If you are still sceptical, then you can go and check this here when Pandya singled out yours truly while narrating his life story at the IIT Mumbai event for the Seetalks, a Ted talk platform for motivation stories.
Pandya was always fascinated by the limelight a cricketer enjoys in this country and he was watching this writer’s interview with former India all-rounder Irfan Pathan which was being recorded for a TV channel and he innocently asked, “aap sirf India players ka interview karte ho? You only interview India players and not the Ranji players?” Never before nor since, as a journalist, this writer had faced this question from a player! Unprepared for such questions, I somehow managed to deflect my awkwardness by arguing that since I worked for a national channel and the space was limited, we were not able to give appropriate attention to young talents like him from domestic cricket even if we desired. Honestly, I was just trying to escape that awkward question.
My ignorance in not knowing Pandya then was somehow justified as his record in 13 first-class matches (batting average 27, and no ton, with the ball just 17 wickets) wasn’t sparkling at all. Even in the shortest format of the game (28 T20 matches his average was 26.47 and strike rate 122.68 and with the ball the same 17 wickets’ tally), he wasn’t even a regular in Baroda side often. And yet, Baroda’s biggest star and one of India’s fine all-rounders Pathan had seen something special in him and had taken him under his wings. Pathan joined the conversation between us by giving a remarkable introduction “He is very talented,” Pathan told me on that day. “He will be playing for India soon.”
Of course, it is now well documented how in that same year, Pandya was picked up at base price by the Mumbai Indians during the IPL auctions. It turned out to be an inspired move, thanks to the former India coach John Wright’s vision who had watched Pandya’s batting in a match in Mumbai in 2014 against Zaheer Khan, where he had hit 82 runs off just 57 balls!
Even when he was barely known in Baroda cricket circuit, he was dreaming about being a star in Indian cricket. And he was willing to do the hard work. He was willing to dare and to fail and then to learn again from mistakes and then make a statement. Despite the apparent cockiness in his personality, he has managed to impress the modern iconic triumvirate of Indian cricket MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in equal measure. If Dhoni was his first India captain who somehow was bowled over by Pandya in such a way that the Baroda player never had to go through the now all too famous struggle for many cricketers have faced while connecting with a reluctant superstar like MSD, as he could take a charter flight from Mumbai to Ranchi just to spend a few days with Mahi bhai. Who knows the calmness which everyone is now talking about Pandya is a gift of Dhoni’s presence in his life when he needed him most in difficult situations in the past?
Pandya of course has always been a quick learner and it is also evidenced by his thoughts. While in our first interaction if he wasn’t shy of saying that he wanted to be India’s Jacques Kallis, but rightly realised later on that such noble ambitions too had the potential to go wrong against him when he would go through the rough patches. Now, he just wanted to be India’s, Hardik Pandya.
Last but not the least, there is one quote which has etched in this writer’s memory when in one of the interview sessions with him, Pandya was asked about the most important lessons he had learnt thus far and he had said- “Copy karo paste karo (copy and paste). This is Kohli’s formula—if you got a century, remember that innings and try to repeat the same process. You just need to remember the methods which made you successful. You need to copy those and paste them.”
However, the way Pandya transformed himself first as a solid and wonderfully reliable middle-order bat for the GT in this IPL and then bowling those thunderbolts in the final of the IPL and of course the unassuming leadership traits, it is impossible to simply cut and paste his methods every time in cricket. One thing is sure - Pandya, who until now was just being seen as a vital allrounder for Team India, now suddenly becomes a serious captaincy material, at least in T20 format. Clearly, he looks far ahead of his contemporaries and friend like KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant in-game awareness and man-management. The way Pandya has scripted a magical story for Gujarat Titans in the IPL 2022, who knows that some months or years down the line if he gets India captaincy, he may repeat the same sentence which we used at the beginning of the piece. “I owe a lot to the IPL as it has changed my cricket and my life.”