Not long after the caffeine-fuelled controversy on a Karan Johar show, and after he had allowed himself to be dragged to training, Hardik Pandya told his childhood coach Jitender Singh in Vadodara: “Coach, you will not hear any negative thing about me after this”.
“He has held that word, his father would have been so proud today,” Jeetubhai, the coach, tells this newspaper on the afternoon of the big IPL final.
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A few hours later at the sparkling Narendra Modi stadium, bustling with more than lakh mostly Gujarat Titan supporters, Hardik led GT to a famous triumph as they chased down 131 with seven wickets in hand. Hardik had chosen the most important game of the tournament to make an important point – he couldn’t just bowl his quota of 4 overs, he still had the sting to deactivate an entire batting line-up. His victims for the day were Jos Butler, Sanju Samson and Shimron Hetmyer – the brawn, brain and the bluster of Rajasthan Royals. And would calmly shepherd the chase, after a few early wickets, with a responsible 34 to further drive the point home.
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For a while in his career, Pandya seemed like he craved attention, without knowing what it was in him that he wanted everyone to look at. Resultantly, he got the attention but not engagement. But in recent times, he has made it clear to himself and everyone that he wants the attention to be on his cricket – and now he has everyone hypnotically hooked.
When the boy from Baroda first burst on the international scene, fans had wished he was the pace bowling all-rounder that India longed for since Kapil Dev. This IPL, Hardik showed that at least in the game’s shortest format, he could win games with both bat and ball and also be the Kapil-like inspirational leader. After the auction, who would have thought Hardik could lead this bunch of no-hoppers to the title in their debut season.
Jeetubhai remembers the first time he tried to introduce captaincy to Hardik, just after the second IPL season. “I made him captain the Reliance side. I told him it’s time he starts developing that aspect.” What happened? The coach laughs. “Hardik wasn’t too keen then. ‘Sir, I don’t want all this now. I want to focus on my batting and bowling.’ So I let him be, but I just wanted that thought to run in the background.”
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When did the tide turn? “When they are young, sometimes they think captaincy is too much responsibility or they think it’s being the boss and all that coolness. At some point, he realized it came naturally to him as it was about decision-making, cricket thinking, strategy, and backing fellow players to be themselves.
“With what he has gone through, and the way the other people have seen him, at times made fun of him, he knows exactly what to do with other players like him. He knows how backing them to be themselves can be a very powerful thing,” the coach says. “I wasn’t surprised he backed David Miller the way he has done.”
The coach identifies three recent events that have matured Hardik rapidly. “The Karan Johar episode, marriage and fatherhood, and the death of his father last year. Each has its own impact, some he realizes, some unconscious, but what I feel is that all the three have matured him. He didn’t want to feel negative again after that television show, he realized all he wanted was a stable happy family after marriage, and the death of his father, who he was very close to, must have matured him to become an adult in many ways. That old bachpana (childishness) has changed.”
The advertising folks behind the ‘Dream Big’ series for a fantasy game cottoned on to that inherent trait in Hardik that matches the public perception, and played it up. Where all other stars in that series, from Rohit Sharma to Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant to Ravichandran Ashwin, play down, choosing overt humility in tracking their rise through the help of an individual, Hardik’s script runs bolder: he talks himself up, talks how even that other individual realized “top ka player hai”.
Jeetubhai, who has known Hardik from when he was very young, smiles when that image is put across. “Let me put it this way. He is like a coconut, hard from outside, very soft inside. An emotional family man, who likes to be cool! I find that combination cute and cool!”
It leads one to another side of Hardik. During his captaincy stint, he has talked about how bowling coach Ashish Nehra and him are like two peas in a pod in cricketing matters. Often, Nehra has been seen counseling him about bowling changes from the sidelines during games. ‘Give one more over to Rashid’, ‘bring a particular fast bowler now’. Hardik has not only not minded it but has actively sought and taken such advice.
“He has no ego in that sense. Advertisements are one thing, the real Hardik is another. He has always been a good listener, has always followed good advice, he might do his thing in the end but always listens first to the people he trusts. And he trusts Nehra a lot. He is not a fool to say ‘I know everything, I will do it my way or what will people think?’ He knows and values good suggestions.” Jeetubhai says. “As I said, he is a coconut in reality.”
Some journalists who were at the Wankhede Stadium a few years back during a Mumbai Indians training session, can attest to it. Something had happened, it couldn’t be ascertained what went down, but suddenly Hardik seemed to be distraught. The then MI head coach Ricky Ponting came across, patted his back, spent a lot of time consoling, then a few other senior players too came across.
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After a while, Hardik got up, kept wiping his tears, and eventually shrugged whatever it was that was bothering him, slipped on sunglasses, threw a glance at the media bunch, and resumed his cool-cat walk. There he was, in public view, overcoming a soft personal moment with poise.
Which brings one to his bowling, which was one of the reasons he couldn’t get into the Indian team in recent times as he wasn’t doing much of it after injury. The coach remembers a session earlier this year when push came to shove.
“One day, something made me tell him that ‘ok enough now, I am going to bat against your bowling.’ He agreed he won’t bowl bouncers. I think he thought he could easily sort me out. I had decided to take him on, basically swing the bat around and luckily connected on many occasions. He was getting angrier by the minute! Suddenly, he bowled a bouncer and that shook me up. I hit again, he bowled another bouncer and I told him ‘arre! you told me you won’t bowl any bouncer; just because you are getting hit, you are not able to take it?! All I wanted to show was that you needed to work harder on bowling. The work isn’t done yet.’ He got it. Recently too, he was showing me that video from that net session and we had a laugh.”
Turning the corner
When Jitender Singh reached Hardik’s home at 7.30 in the morning when he was sent back from Australia post the Karan Johar controversy, he found his old ward sitting on a sofa with his sunglasses on. “He hadn’t slept the whole night, na?,” the coach asked another person in the room. “Tension nahin lena hai (Don’t take tension). You will get back to playing for India very soon. Jo ho gaya, voh ho gaya (what’s done is done), no use worrying about it. Come tomorrow to Reliance stadium. Now, smile.”
Next day was Uttarayan, the famous kite festival in January. Everything shuts down, thousands of Gujarati necks crane up staring at colorful kites. “I had booked a badminton court for us to play. Just to get the competitive juices and the joy of sport back in him. I wanted him to sweat out. He freed himself, usko ehsaas hua (he realized) that he is a sportsman and this is what he is born to do. Not chat shows.
I saw that he was upset about what happened. I know him well. He is a very emotional boy. Don’t go by his dress and chains, and the style icon he seems to be. Bachcha hai (he is a child) and very pure at heart.”
Once mocked, laughed at, dropped from the team, Hardik has bounced back in remarkable fashion. “Throughout my life, a lot of people have counted me out and put a question mark. Same thing about the auction, or retention or even my captaincy. The best way to answer is not to answer,” Hardik says in the GT video. “All the people who said something, I don’t have to tell them to take it back. I think they themselves have taken it back.”