How India's Hardik Pandya reinvented the cricketing wheel and became a force to reckon with

Grit and positivity are the keys to the all-rounder’s resurgence after being out for more than 2 years with a career-threatening lower back injury

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By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Sun 24 Jul 2022, 10:16 PM

Last updated: Sun 24 Jul 2022, 10:49 PM

The scale of Hardik Pandya’s comeback this year after plumbing the depths of injury and loss of form is as rare as it gets. The latest stage for Pandya 2.0 to shine was the venerable Old Trafford ground in Manchester July 17. He took out four of the top six English batsmen for 24 runs. Then, he scored 71 in a 133-run fifth wicket partnership with Rishabh Pant to rescue India from a dodgy 72-4 and clinch the One Day International (ODI) series. The last time an Indian achieved the dual feat of taking four wickets and making a half-century in an ODI was 11 years ago when Yuvraj Singh did it against Ireland in the 2011 World Cup.

Pandya did the same thing in the T20 series against England earlier this month, scoring 51 and taking four wickets to get India off to a winning start. Medium pace all-rounders are gold, especially on pitches outside the subcontinent where spinners are less effective. But the likes of Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, and Ian Botham are rare in today’s cricket, partly because of the toll that a packed calendar takes on an all-rounder’s body. Ben Stokes, a vital all-rounder in the England team that won the 2019 World Cup, announced his retirement from ODIs after the loss to India. He’s just 31, and a little over two years older than Pandya.

Apart from bat and ball, another string in Pandya’s bow is his captaincy, which has been a revelation this year. On his debut as captain of India, he led a second-string team to a hard-fought T20 series win in Ireland last month. Before that, he led the new franchise, Gujarat Titans (GT), to the 2022 title in the highly competitive Indian Premier League (IPL).

India's Hardik Pandya celebrates taking the wicket of of England's captain Ben Stokes (unseen). Photo: AFP
India's Hardik Pandya celebrates taking the wicket of of England's captain Ben Stokes (unseen). Photo: AFP

His team lost only four games out of 14 to top the league table, before winning the first play-off and the final. Pandya is only the fourth first-time captain in the 15-year history of the IPL to win the title — after Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, and Rohit Sharma in 2008, 2009 and 2013, respectively.

Scepticism was understandable when GT picked him to lead the side. He had returned to action towards the end of 2020 after a long lay-off following back surgery in the previous year. His performances with the bat for Mumbai Indians (MI) in IPL 2021 and for India in last year’s T20 World Cup were way below par. Besides, he was hardly bowling. But GT took a chance with him anyway, and India have discovered an astute leader for limited overs cricket, who will probably be a better deputy to Rohit Sharma than KL Rahul.

What are the defining aspects of the Pandya avatar we’re seeing this year after his phenomenal turnaround?

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Leading by example

Leaders are most inspirational when they can set an example with their own performances. Pandya’s three wickets for 17 runs in the IPL 2022 final, removing the main threats from the opposition — Jos Buttler, Sanju Samson, and Shimron Hetmyer — helped GT take a firm grip on the match in front of a home crowd in Ahmedabad. He also scored 34 in the run-chase of a low-scoring final to be adjudged the Player of the Match. The only other IPL captain to be the Player of the Match in a final was Sharma in 2015, when he smashed 50 in 26 balls to set up MI’s victory over MS Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings (CSK).

Pandya set the tone from the very outset. The skipper walked out to bat at No. 4 after the fall of two early wickets in the first match against a strong Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) and had a 57-run partnership with David Miller. Titans won by the narrow margin of three runs in the end, thanks to Mohammed Shami’s three wickets with the new ball, including those of LSG openers KL Rahul and Quinton de Kock.

Strategic nous

Fours and sixes excite the hoi polloi. So, it’s not surprising that batsmen hog the limelight. But the smartest teams have always known that it’s bowlers who win tournaments. MI won IPL 2019 with a pace bowling unit comprising Jasprit Bumrah, Lasith Malinga, and Mitchell McClenaghan. But they ended up at the bottom of the table this year because of their auction team’s obsession in acquiring wicketkeeper-batsman Ishan Kishan, leaving Bumrah with weak bowling support.

Titans, on the other hand, followed up their daring move to name Pandya the captain with prioritising their bowling line-up. Shami had the support of Lockie Ferguson and Alzarri Joseph who can both cross 150 kmph. And Rashid Khan, the IPL’s most successful leg-spinner, took care of the middle overs.

Significantly, Pandya knew how best to play the hand he had been dealt, with a wicket-taking mindset. It started with the very first match when Shami bowled three overs on the trot in the opening power-play to pick up three wickets. The skipper would often take the risk of exhausting his main bowlers’ quota in his efforts to maintain pressure and take wickets, even if it meant lesser bowlers had to bowl the final overs.

Photo: Twitter/Hardik Pandya
Photo: Twitter/Hardik Pandya

Respecting top performers

South Africa’s Miller had two outstanding IPL seasons in 2013 and 2014, famously quoting his father, “If it’s in the V, it’s in the tree; if it’s in the arc, it’s out of the park”. Thereafter, he fell away as he was shunted up and down the order and in and out of the teams in which he played. His auction price dropped to INR 7.5 (Dh0.35) million when Rajasthan Royals (RR) acquired him in 2020, a quarter of what Kings XI Punjab had paid earlier before releasing him. He got only one game in 2020 and had eight stints with the bat in 2021 for an average of 24.80 at a paltry strike rate of 110.

Pandya assured the talented South African of a No.5 slot, giving him space to get set and then explode. Miller played all 16 games for GT and rewarded his skipper with several match-winning performances for an outstanding average of 68.71 at a punishing strike rate of 142.73. Fittingly enough, he made an unbeaten 68 in 38 balls in the playoff, and 32 not out in 19 balls to close out the final, both times against his former franchise RR.

Another top performer, Khan, who left Sunrisers Hyderabad when they refused to give him top billing in the retentions, got his due respect as Pandya’s vice-captain. He was paid INR 150 (Dh6.90) million, the same amount that his captain drew. The 23-year-old became one of the youngest IPL captains when he led the team to victory over CSK in Pandya’s absence. Khan’s cameo of 40 in 21 balls in a 70-run partnership with Miller when GT were teetering at 87 for 5 saved the day. The No.7 slot gave Khan the chance to show his prowess as an innovative finisher, another aspect of the miserly Afghan leg-spinner’s game underutilised by his former franchise.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Playing to strengths

While Khan and Miller had a point to prove as well as the wherewithal to drive it home, 37-year-old Wriddhiman Saha was an unlikely hero after being discarded from the Indian Test team, ostensibly for being too old to be a second wicketkeeper. GT had a problem at the top with the last-minute withdrawal of England opener Jason Roy. So, Pandya made the best use of his unsung but inventive wicketkeeper-batsman as a pinch-hitter in the power-play.

The clarity of Saha’s role in taking risks to go over the infield and exploit the fielding restrictions gave GT many a fast start. And on three occasions when he survived the power-play, he went on to make fifties, using his considerable skills in playing spin in the middle overs. Not everyone can be a superhero, but a team is more likely to succeed if a captain can get the best out of everyone. Too often the focus is on rectifying flaws and not enough attention is paid to fully using strengths.

Firm but encouraging

Pandya’s leadership was effective with a relative oldie like Saha as well as newcomers with whom he was firm but encouraging enough to ensure they would not be overwhelmed by the occasion. You could see the skipper gesticulating vigorously in a loud “No! We’re not taking it” when left-arm medium pacer Yash Dayal kept asking for a review of an umpiring decision. At the same time, he was usually alongside the newcomer playing in his first IPL, giving him attacking fields and the confidence to aim for wickets with a swinging new ball. Dayal, ultimately, played an important support role in the final, bowling three economical overs and taking the wicket of RR opener Yashasvi Jaiswal who looked threatening.

Another newcomer who played a useful hand in the IPL final with two wickets was left-arm spinner Ravisrinivasan Sai Kishore. Pandya waited for the second half of the season for the pitches to be more amenable to spin before bringing the newbie into the picture — more evidence of his thoughtful leadership.

Taking the bull by the horns

All the talk before the IPL 2022 season began was how GT would manage with only two pedigreed batsmen from international teams in their team — Shubman Gill and Miller. Pandya took the bull by the horns by stepping into the crucial No.4 position where a batsman must adapt his game according to different situations and types of bowlers. He had to tune his batting for this position, having been a hard-hitter and finisher for MI and India earlier.

That he finished the season with an average of 44 shows the responsibility with which he took the role. His strike rate of 131 was decent but way below the 191-strike rate he had for MI in 2019. But that’s exactly what the new role demanded. Apart from adaptability, it requires enormous self-belief in one’s own abilities to do this as a new skipper. It has now carried forward into his batting for the Indian team, where he exudes a new assurance.

Inner positivity

“Most of us don’t listen in to what’s being said internally, especially negativity, and redirect it to something more productive. You must control that script,” former Aussie all-rounder Shane Watson told this writer in a chat during IPL 2022 where he was an assistant coach for Delhi Capitals. Watson’s career had gone into a nosedive from a combination of injury and the mental trauma of seeing his team-mate Phillip Hughes being felled by a bouncer and dying in 2014. One of the heroes of Warne’s inaugural IPL in 2008, Watson was on the verge of retiring at 34. Then a mental skills guru helped him change his inner script and he was back. He made an unbeaten 117 in 57 balls in the IPL 2018 final to help CSK win the title.

That is what it took for Pandya’s resurgence as a player after being down and out for more than two years with the sort of lower back injury that puts doubts in one’s mind on how far one can go. That is also what now makes him such a cool and effective leader.

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