In the 2015 edition of the Indian Premier League, this tall, (too) lean youngster with a cool-dude haircut turned out in the blue and gold of Mumbai Indians. Hardik Pandya did smash a 31-ball 61 not out against Kolkata in one match. It’s not all he did, but the highlight, surely. And, of course, he was much written about. This was the turbo-charged IPL, after all.
Later that year, he hit big and bowled fast, scoring runs and taking wickets, in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Twenty20 tournament. Compared to the IPL, and perhaps even otherwise, the Mushtaq Ali is a low-profile event, and there were no drumrolls.
But the people who matter do keep an eye on the tournament, and that meant the young man, only just into his 20s, was picked in the Indian T20 teams, for the tour of Australia and then the Asia Cup in Bangladesh.
It made sense. The question of consistency didn’t really come up. He could hit hard, he could bowl fast, and he was bright on the field. It was about impact. He was perfect for T20s.
Then came the World T20 – and Hardik first starred in that incredible last-over win over Bangladesh, and then fluffed his lines in the semifinal against Windies. Happens. Young man. Pressure, etc.
But come 2016 IPL, and young Hardik fell away completely. It was his brother, Krunal, who was the new Mumbai Indians star.
During the tournament, when Hardik was sitting out, a Mumbai Indians insider told me that the early success had gone to the young man’s head. Krunal was the more balanced and sensible of the two. Hardik was more interested in the glamorous lifestyle and the showbiz side of things. “Arrogant.” He would have to pull his socks up big time to get his game back. “Tchah, waste!”
It was a familiar narrative. The shooting star … too bright and then forever gone. It only reinforced my own old-fashioned ideas about swaggering young men with flashy hair and fancy threads. I could almost hear my old mother mouth, “Mathay nei chul, bogoley baabri”; the jokey old Bangla adage means “all style, no substance”, but I think the literal translation is more evocative: “bald head, lush armpits”.
Hardik was finished; whether the more grounded Krunal would make it or not instead was irrelevant.
Except that a year and a half on, Hardik is not just still here, he is shining brighter than ever. He had pulled up his socks and got his game back, and how! And there’s still a new hairstyle in place every third day.
Hardik has scored runs almost each time he has walked out to bat, and scored them fast. He even has a Test century already – his only one in first-class cricket, which leads to a selection-related question, but that’s a separate debate. He has wickets, and has bowled good balls at key times. Without a doubt, he has established himself as India’s numero uno fast-bowling allrounder. Certainly for short-format cricket and even, especially with no real competition on the horizon, in the long format too.
How did the change come about?
Listening to Hardik speak at press conferences and informal conversations with those in the know threw up a combination of reasons. 1. A bit of wisdom from those who saw the potential and knew about the pitfalls; people including, but not restricted to, Anil Kumble, Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar (and, I’m sure, Ravi Shastri). 2. The time with Rahul Dravid in the India A team last year – Dravid spoke of being impressed with the boy, especially with his attitude while batting – could only have helped, as it has so many youngsters over the past few seasons. 3. Being told that the team would persist with him and give him the chances he needed, and that it was up to him to sink or swim. And 3. [From Mumbai Indians insiders again] A sea change in his attitude, seriousness and approach by the time we had IPL 2017. All obvious, I guess. The equanimity with which he handled a recent Twitter stupidity was a good example of his growing up too.
Importantly, Hardik realises his worth. What I see now is the real deal. Or the makings of it.
Reportedly, Tendulkar had seen his potential at Mumbai Indians and predicted the meteoric rise that has caught so many of us by surprise – but that’s Tendulkar. Kohli had called him “priceless” a while ago, at a time when Hardik himself wasn’t putting a high enough price on his wicket or his deliveries.
More recently, in the context of the No. 4 spot in the batting order in limited-overs cricket, Kohli said, “Hardik has got a solid defence and good technique. He is not just a slogger. If he gains more confidence and if he can understand how to take the game till the end, he might be a regular at that spot.”
I hope that happens. If it does, India might finally have got the man they have needed for a while now. Not the next Kapil Dev – I don’t think Hardik has the ability with the ball that Kapil did. But then again, he could be a more useful batsman as compared to the older man who never quite did justice to his potential with the bat. A sort of Indian Ben Stokes then. Someone who can bowl fast and has the canniness to mix it up enough to pick up wickets, and can be backed to score some good runs, not just those useful 30s, but 70s and 80s, and even 100s. Yes, such players are, indeed, priceless.
Hardik is starting to come of age – he isn’t yet the finished product. But each time India play a match these days, I look out for his numbers on the scoreboard. Yes, I too have come of age in this new era; I still don’t care for the excessive bling, but I think I can now see beyond the style, to the substance.
Guess you could say that I have come to appreciate the lush armpits too.