Reward Hardik Pandya

The dust and grime over the Indian Premier League has settled. Days after Gujarat Titans won the title at the Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad, taming Rajasthan Royals by seven wickets, one person who remains in focus and constant conversation is Hardik Pandya.

When cricket’s biggest T20 domestic tournament was to be held this summer, the addition of two new teams was the talking point. Take any league or tournament, when a new team or teams are inducted, you would expect they are under pressure. The focus is on the big guns.

However, Gujarat Titans was a different proposition altogether. When the team was clicking in the league phase, it appeared they were having fun and enjoying themselves as there was no pressure. The same could be said about Lucknow Super Giants as well. But given the format of the IPL, playing a long  number of league matches and then climaxing towards the end, it was not easy.

Gujarat versus Rajasthan Royals in the final became an emotional topic of discussion as this was supposed to be a tribute match to Shane Warne. With the Aussie spin legend dying earlier this year tragically, everyone felt Rajasthan Royals winning the IPL title would be the biggest tribute to the legend.

Rajasthan played well for a large part. It was a side led well by Sanju Samson, had R.Ashwin shining in it in different roles and Jos Buttler being a very strong person in the side. However, in the final, it was Gujarat Titans, the debutant side, playing in front of a huge capacity stadium, which dazzled and came up trumps.

One man showed he could make a huge difference. It was King Hardik Pandya. When Hardik was made captain, questions kept cropping up, if he was fit enough to play the lengthy tournament. Perhaps, no player has been so much under the scanner as the Gujarat captain, who at one point of time was touted as India’s best possible all-rounder. Comparisons had been made even with Kapil Dev.

However, once injuries cropped up, it was hard for Hardik. He had been with Mumbai Indians before but to be leading a fresh side was a huge challenge. Again, questions were persisting, was Hardik fit enough. As an all-rounder, a player has to bat, bowl and field. Call it lapping up the challenge of leading a side or turning out to be cricketer with inborn leadership acumen, Hardik has emerged the flavour of the season. From former great Sunil Gavaskar to the man who has shaped the destiny of the Gujarat Titans side in the first year, Gary Kirsten, Hardik has come in for fulsome praise.

By scoring 487 runs and taking eight wickets, Hardik showed he was an asset to the side. But then, it is not statistics alone which defines the versatility and value of a leader. Cricket fans are aware Hardik is an explosive batsman. For a man who underwent back surgery, it’s not easy to be the same player. Hardik showed a new side to his batting, wherein he was not trying to slog every ball or chase it for a four or a six. He batted according to the situation. It’s a trait he developed by virtue of becoming captain, realising his role was far more bigger than merely being a destructive batsman.

The timing of Hardik shaping up well in this IPL is important. There had been so much debate before the IPL whether this tournament would  resemble a jumbo jet with 10 teams in it and not eight. There were more matches, there was more cricket fatigue and there was also this talk of how IPL TV viewership figures had been dropping.

We all know the IPL is cricket plus commerce plus entertainment. Like the good old TV sops at night, watching the IPL at night has become sort of a necessity around dinner time. Sample this, even though Chennai Super Kings did very badly this year, the FM channels in Chennai and Tamil Nadu are still talking about where their loyalties lie. Nobody in these radio channels is rubbishing MS Dhoni or the other players in the CSK side. All talk is of how CSK is their own side and it will again start doing well from 2023.

If this is the relationship or emotional quotient between the fan and the franchise, you could well imagine what will be the future of the Gujarat Titans. They said, Gujjus can only be good businessmen. Watching over one lakh fans packed inside the stadium for the final, comparisons were made with the Eden Gardens, which has hosted many blue riband cricket events. Then again, if fans in Kolkata have been passionate about watching sport, Ahmedabad has shown it, too, is willing to watch high voltage cricket and cheer.

This could well be a new trend where the growth of the sport of cricket in commercial terms can be exploited in future years. And yes, one can feel proud the city has got a brand new stadium where the seating capacity and design of the arena is a treat for fans. Viewing cricket at this venue is a huge thrill and the 360-degree view is not just glib talk but one of true nature.

Back to the favourite teams and captains enjoying an exalted status, this IPL showed how so many captains were floundering. If anything, the pressure this time was far less in a few ways, as they were playing on home soil and not in the UAE. After two years of IPL in the UAE, for the tournament to be played in Mumbai’s multiple venues, Pune and eventually Kolkata and Ahmedabad was a super hit.

There was some concern in between when Covid 19 cases cropped up in the Delhi  Capitals side. However, nothing happened like the IPL in 2021, when bang in the middle of the Delta wave (Covid) the Delhi team was laid low and the virus spread crazily. If anything, the Bio Bubble was hard this time as well but used effectively for IPL 2022 to become a success.

This being the year of the ICC World T20, to be held in Australia, the emergence of Hardik Pandya as a leader gives the mandarins in the Indian cricket board (BCCI) a lot to think about. Perhaps, in its hurry to destroy and remove Virat Kohli the captain and then elevate Rohit Sharma as new captain, it had shown a lack of maturity.

KL Rahul, who led the Lucknow franchise, showed great promise early on in the IPL. However, if comparisons are to be made today, based on performances in the IPL, it’s Hardik who has emerged as  hero. He needs to be managed well as a batsman and bowler. He can chip in well.

If the BCCI can leave aside ego, then it should rethink a few decisions. Of course, to imagine Rohit being removed as India captain in at least one format would be nice. He is supposed to be India’s best leader in white ball cricket. The IPL showed he was not only pathetic as the Mumbai Indians captain but a super flop batsman.  A batsman who was falling and flailing, much to the  chagrin of the Mumbai Indians bosses.

As for the other team captains like Rahul, Mayank Aggarwal and Rishabh Pant, they fade when compared with Hardik Pandya. In the past, the IPL has been used a tournament to pick players based on performance. If that be the yardstick this time, Hardik Pandya deserves something more special.

After all, a winning IPL captain in a new team is worth raving about. It was not a fluke show nor was it one of sheer effulgence. Hardik has won millions of hearts and shown that he has leadership skills which should worry a few in the Indian side.

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