Hardik Pandya: Beyond chains and swagger
At his first post-retirement press conference, an English journalist asked Sachin Tendulkar about his prediction for the 2013-14 Ashes in Australia. Tendulkar didn’t oblige, but he did say that he thought Mitchell Johnson, who had played alongside him for Mumbai Indians (MI), would be a key performer. Johnson hadn’t even played the series in England earlier in the year, and his erratic displays had made him a figure of fun in English cricket circles. Tendulkar’s answer was greeted with polite smiles and a couple of discreet sniggers. By the end of the Ashes, Johnson had 37 wickets and England had been routed 5-0.
Eighteen months later, Tendulkar the soothsayer was watching as Hardik Pandya, playing his first season in the Indian Premier League (IPL) for MI, smashed a 31-ball 61 against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), the defending champions. “If you keep doing this, you’ll be playing for India within the next one and a half years,” Tendulkar told him after the game.
“That was my moment,” Pandya said in a recent TV interview. “Okay, let’s work hard now.” It took him just seven months.
The tattoo on his left forearm says “Believe”. The reaction of most Indian fans was just the opposite when Pandya was first picked for the Twenty20 squad in January 2016. His numbers in the format are nothing special, even today, and he looked far more a bits-and-pieces cricketer than his predecessor from Vadodara, Irfan Pathan.
But those who mattered, including Tendulkar and the selectors, saw something they liked, the same qualities that had convinced Kiran More, once the chairman of the national selection panel, that the young man was capable of sprinkling some stardust. Pandya had dropped out of school in class IX, with his father’s health woes and poor academic performance convincing him that his path had to be different.
In those days, he was primarily a batsman who bowled leg spin. When K. Sanath Kumar, who had briefly represented Karnataka, took charge of Vadodara’s Ranji Trophy team in June 2011, he knew very little about the pool of players he had to choose from. To remedy that, he started organizing tournaments in Vadodara for each format, with three-four teams playing each other. “That’s how we found Hardik Pandya, an Under-19 player who is a very talented medium pacer, a good batsman who can also bowl leg spin and is a brilliant fielder,” he told Wisden India in late 2013.
But it wasn’t as though Pandya set the first-class scene alight either. In 17 games before making his Test debut in Galle, Sri Lanka, earlier this year, he averaged just 27.63 with the bat, and had taken only 24 wickets, at 35.67. He also didn’t have the sort of physique you would associate with those who bowl fast.
In fact, at first glance, it’s not Lord’s but White City that comes to mind. Pandya is built like a greyhound—all angles and sinew. But appearances can be deceptive. He can nudge the speed gun past 140 kmph, and belts the ball as far as anyone in the game. After a Test debut in which he belted a 49-ball 50 and took 1 for 34, Virat Kohli—who now calls him Superstar—was effusive in his praise. “If he grows in confidence.... You see someone like Ben Stokes, what he does for England. Brings in great balance as an all-rounder. I see no reason why Hardik Pandya can’t become that for India.”
India’s desperate search for a seam-bowling Test all-rounder, especially after the trouncings they suffered in England and Australia earlier this decade, is well documented. Pathan, who took a hat-trick and scored 93 while once opening the batting, briefly looked the real deal, but hasn’t played a Test since 2008—waylaid by injuries, loss of form and confidence.
In his second outing, Pandya broke Sri Lanka’s most significant partnership of the series with a cutter, a delivery he had barely tried before the start of the game. In the third match, he shepherded the tail expertly while slamming 108 from only 96 balls, including 26 in one Malinda Pushpakumara over.
“People might have problems with the kind of demeanour he has or the belief he carries with himself, but we in the team certainly have no doubts about that,” Kohli said afterwards, of a 24-year-old whose left arm also has a tattoo of a clock with the words “Time Heals Everything”. “We let him be who he is, we let him express himself. A guy who can get a fifty and a hundred in his first three games batting at No.8 has to have something special in him. And the innings that he played here, after being 320 for 6, wasn’t just mad slogging. He actually used his brain and batted with the tail, which I think is a great sign for us.”
Pandya had a penchant for hitting sixes even in junior cricket, but was also known as a hard worker. Wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia, who played 44 Tests for India, was among several senior cricketers whose advice he sought. In his teens, he was much in demand in the tennis-ball tournaments that mushroomed across Gujarat. He would play matches in Vadodara and nearby towns and villages, and charge Rs400 for each appearance, while also turning out in more traditional leather-ball games on Sundays.
The money was very welcome. Himanshu Pandya, his father, used to drop him off for practice on his scooter and pick him up, but his health issues left the family in quite a financial bind. The money from his tennis-ball-hitting exploits helped meet his training expenses.
For all the bling—Kieron Pollard, his MI teammate, has been a big influence, and Pandya freely admits to his love of Caribbean culture—and the I’m-so-cool nonchalance, Pandya is acutely conscious of the road of thorns his family and he have had to cross. Another tattoo on his right arm says “Never Give Up”, and after winning the man of the match award for his century in Pallekele, Pandya called up Krunal, older brother and best friend, to discuss a present for their father.
They gifted him a Jeep Compass SUV, and the video that was posted on social media of a stunned Himanshu being told that the car was his went viral soon afterwards. What Hardik didn’t share was the footage of father and son both shedding tears. And even as he soaks in the acclaim, he is acutely conscious of how ephemeral sporting fame can be.
It was him that M.S. Dhoni turned to for the final over of a must-win game against Bangladesh in Bengaluru at the World Twenty20 in 2016. Pandya had gone for 20 in his first two overs, and Bangladesh needed 11 to win from the last six balls. The first three went for 9, and India’s campaign seemed to be as good as over. But Dhoni walked across and had a long chat, Pandya kept his nerve, and Bangladesh lost theirs. India sneaked home by a run.
He took the wickets of Aaron Finch and James Faulkner in the victory over Australia, before his tendency to pitch short was ruthlessly targeted in the semi-final. On an evening when none of the bowlers apart from Ashish Nehra emerged with any credit, Pandya was carted for 43 in his four overs. Lendl Simmons had made 50 when he miscued a stroke off Pandya to cover. But Pandya had overstepped, and the free hit that followed went sailing over the rope. Simmons finished unbeaten on 82.
In his next global tournament, the Champions Trophy, Pandya was the one splash of sunshine as India capitulated in the final. With his bleached locks, chains and swagger, he can make the game look effortless. But a lot of sweat, tears and sacrifice have gone into him becoming one of India’s few all-format internationals. He believes, as the tattoo on his left triceps tell you, that you “Live to Succeed”.