From unknown game-changer to national team: The six weeks that changed Hardik Pandya's life
Nine months ago, Hardik Pandya was an unknown, today the 22-year-old been flooded with congratulatory messages and interview requests after making the cut for India's T20 squad for the Australia tour.
"Once a king is always a king,” is Hardik Pandya's Whatsapp status. It is an intriguing saying. But everything about Hardik Pandya has been intriguing so far in his nascent cricketing career.
Ten months ago, Hardik Pandya was an unknown. Today, the 22-year-old been flooded with congratulatory messages and interview requests after making the cut for India's T20 squad for the Australia tour. The Indian Premier League has changed his life.
"No one knew who Hardik Pandya was before the IPL, I don't think even you must be knowing who Hardik Pandya is," he told Firstpost. "It changed everything. Wherever I go now, people know who Hardik Pandya is. It has changed my life."
Hardik played a crucial role in helping Mumbai Indians win the 2015 IPL title, and from then on, things have never been the same.
He was five-years-old when his father Himanshu Pandya wound up his small car finance business and shifted from Surat to Baroda for the cricketing careers of his two kids - Hardik and Krunal. Himanshu enrolled both brothers in former India cricketer Kiran More's academy. Both the brothers made steady progress through the junior ranks amidst extreme financial constraints and family crisis.
All this while, Hardik's reputation as a game-changer in club cricket continued to grow. "He won a lot of matches single-handedly for our club," Krunal told Firstpost.
But there was one moment that turned it around for Hardik. Baroda were struggling at 20/2 in their opening match of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, at the Wankhede Stadium last year, when Hardik walked in to bat in the fifth over and turned it around with a blistering 57-ball 82 (not out) facing the likes of Zaheer Khan, Dhawal Kulkarni and Pravin Tambe.
Baroda won the match and Hardik caught the eye of former India and then Mumbai Indians head coach John Wright who was present at the venue along with the MI think-tank. They were so impressed with the youngster that two days later they came back to watch his next match, against Gujarat. He didn't disappoint, finishing with figures of 4-1-7-3 and scoring 37 runs. Baroda won the trophy and Hardik had played a crucial role in their triumph.
"He batted really well and looked quite confident and that's how I know him," Aditya Tare, who shared the dressing room with Hardik in the IPL and was playing opposite him for Mumbai in that Syed Mushtaq Ali match, told us. "He looked a different player, he looked quite a quality player and different from all the other Baroda players. He was striking them pretty clean. That innings showed his quality."
From then on Mumbai Indians started following Hardik's progress. Not many know that he was called up to the Mumbai Indians camp as a back-up for an injured player during the 2014 season -- but his stay lasted only 15 days as the player got fit in time. While it surprised others, it wasn't a surprise for the Pandya family that he was picked up for the base price of Rs 10 lakhs by Mumbai Indians in the 2015 auction.
During the first few days with the team, Hardik admits he was star struck -- but given his jolly nature, he gelled with the entire camp quickly.
"At first we were just getting used to the stars. We had never seen Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar or Rohit Sharma this close. So the first couple of days went in getting used to it and then the feeling sunk in that -- okay, you are the part of the team and the stage belongs to you as well," Hardik said.
He had to wait for a while before making his debut against RCB in Mumbai Indians' fifth match of the season but he was in the selection mix in the previous matches too.
"We declare 12 people in the team meeting at the ground. I was in the 12-man team in almost all the games before I made my debut. So I was ready. It was the same before the RCB match - they had told everyone, be ready, but it was only when I saw Ricky Ponting taking out the new cap and heading towards me moments before the match that I came to know that this was my time and I was going to make my debut."
Hardik started off in a blistering fashion and the second delivery of his debut was a massive six over mid-wicket as he played a handy cameo (a 6-ball 16) which gave MI the momentum after four losses in their first four games.
“When he hit the six off the second ball, he got the confidence that yes I can belong to this level,” says Krunal.
Whether you ask his coach Ajay Pawar, his brother Krunal or his colleague Tare -- the buzzword they attribute to Hardik is 'confidence'. And it is this attribute -- a must for a top-level sportsperson -- that sets him apart from others.
"I don't take much pressure, I just keep calm. I put my hand up when the team needs me, when everyone is under pressure, I do it for the team, I take it as an opportunity and a challenge, if things are not going right, that's when you got to stand and deliver. If you do well there, then people will remember you forever."
It was this ability to stand and deliver that helped him turn matches for Mumbai Indians at crucial junctures.
Mumbai had got off to a horrific start and every match was a virtual knock-out for them from then on. Against CSK at MA Chidambaram Stadium, he helped them pull off an improbable win -- with 30 required from two overs, he hit a breezy 8-ball 21 including three sixes off the penultimate over from Pawan Negi which yielded 25 runs. This was the innings that marked his arrival on the big stage.
“I went out to bat, practically it wasn't looking good because (Dwayne) Bravo was bowling amazingly and he had one over left too. Obviously if we are confident we will be targeting a 16-run over or 17 max, but Bravo was bowling so well that even a 10-run over seemed difficult to score on that wicket. So we had to target the penultimate over accordingly and touchwood we scored 25 runs,” Hardik said.
But there was also a twist in fate that handed Hardik the chance to be the hero. "I don't know what happened to Rohit bhai(Rohit Sharma) -- when he got out and was walking back he stopped Bhajju pa (Harbhajan Singh, who was padded up to go next) and asked Ponting to send me.
"The wicket was not that easy and Rohit bhai later said that the chances of me hitting the ball cleanly were more because I was a proper batsman and would find it much easier to hit the ball."
Head coach Ricky Ponting described him as a 'fearless kid' and said that he had lots of very good skills as praise poured in from all quarters after that innings.
Hardik described it as one of the best moments of the IPL because it came in challenging circumstances.
The confidence grew and a match later, he followed it up with another crucial 45-ball 61 against Kolkata Knight Riders with MI struggling at 79/4. While Kieron Pollard struggled to clear the fence, Hardik hammered eight fours and two sixes which earned him the Man of the Match award.
"Hardik had an innate ball striking ability right from his childhood. When he was a kid hitting sixes gave him more happiness rather than the amount of runs he scored," said Krunal. In the IPL he was hitting sixes at will. Krunal however, believes that Hardik’s batting isn’t just one-dimensional. “He isn't a player who just slogs. If you see his innings against KKR, not a single shot was a slog, every shot was a cricketing shot. He is a proper batsman and a thinking cricketer.”
Those two innings left a mark on the millions of fans across the world - and on his teammates. "It's not an easy job for a young guy to come up and play in his first IPL and win games for Mumbai. He did it twice in three games which was incredible and everyone was happy for him," Tare said.
First getting into a jam-packed star-studded Mumbai Indians side, then winning the trust and then turning into a game changer, Hardik’s coming of age at the IPL was the stuff of dreams. Add to that the India call-up.
Hardik described the feeling: “First of all, they were just trusting me that this kid can do things because he is young and has the talent, but after those good performances, they were counting on me, they were expecting things that, ‘Yeah, he can win games for us’.”
Throughout the six-week period, Hardik was constantly in touch with his brother Krunal over the phone with whom he shares a special bond. He also got quite close to Ponting. The six weeks of IPL had brought about a turnaround in his life and also as a cricketer.
"I have improved a lot after the IPL. Whenever you play at a higher level, you always learn," says Hardik.
"Cricket-wise I learnt everything - batting, bowling, fielding. How to improve my personality. Everything... everything. IPL was a turnaround in my life."
"I think a lot now before doing anything, I read the game very well. I have sharpened my bowling as well. I am bowling quick, I am bowling on the right spots, I've been doing good in nets and working hard as well. Batting wise, I have always been very good so I am just sharpening my skills, but bowling wise I have improved immensely," Hardik added.
"After the IPL, his confidence level has gone sky high. He plays local cricket at-the-wheel now. I’ve seen him right from the time of Under-14 and I can feel the difference when he was upcoming and when he is established. He has gained more control now," says Pawar, who has monitored his progress at the KMCA since their Under-14 days.
Despite his IPL heroics, the India call-up came as a surprise to Hardik: “My first plan was to get into the eleven of MI. I was not expecting it (India call-up). Touchwood I have been very lucky to be selected for India,” he said.
“I was just thinking that I had to do well in the domestic circuit and I had to keep doing well to play for India."
Hardik didn’t shy away from crediting luck as much as the hard work he has put in to reach this stage: “I have been very lucky as well because whenever I did well, someone was watching me. You know things happen at the right time and with me that was the game. Everything was going right, everything came right. When I did well, someone was watching and making notes that Hardik Pandya is doing well.”
Ponting’s advice during the IPL still echoes into his ears every day: “He always told me one thing - don't stop working hard, you’re going to play big cricket if you keep on working hard. I always remember his words and keep working hard. I played a game today and scored 96 but still went to practice so I still remember his words.”
After the first qualifier against CSK, Sachin Tendulkar called over Hardik and told him that he will play for India in the next 18 months. And here he is, it’s not even been a year and he is selected in the Indian squad. So what now?
“I want to cement my place in the India team at first, do well for India for a couple of years and next will be to achieve what the likes of Virat Kohli, (MS) Dhoni bhai and others have achieved. I know that if I do well in one format, I will be playing in all the three formats for India."
He uses the word ‘bro’ numerous times in the interview. With his funky clothing, trendy hairstyles, catchy celebrations and his love for West Indies players, you can see why he’s called a ‘rockstar’ in the Mumbai Indians camp.
And there was that Whatsapp status.
“Life has been teaching me a lot, a lot, I guess a lot. Life has taught me many things. In all the things, I try to live like a king, all the time. Whether I have money or I don’t have money, my way of living is the same. So that's why 'once a king is always a king'," Hardik explained.
But despite all the fame, he hasn't allowed the success to get into his head.
“He is a very down to earth person. He interacts normally with his academy team members when he comes to practice on the ground," coach Pawar said. “I just asked him a couple of days back, do you see any change in yourself. This was his reply: 'Sir achieve thaya no anand toh che, vaandho nai pan hu to e no e aj chu, mane to haji evu aj revanu game che. " (I am happy about my achievements but I am the same old Hardik Pandya and would love to remain the same.)"
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