"Talented to bannev aj che, jovo have ek varas next IPL nu jaye to tame decide kari le so ke bannev talented che."
(We both are talented, let this next IPL finish; you will yourself decide that indeed both are talented)
Krunal Pandya told me when I asked him which of the two brothers - Hardik or he - was more talented after his younger brother had just received a maiden call-up to the Indian side, two months before the IPL 2016 auction.
Back in December 2015, Krunal was an unknown name for the cricketing world. He hadn't played a first-class game. There were just four List A matches and 27 T20s against his name. It was only through interviews about his brother that people came to know that he was Hardik's sibling.
While his brother suddenly shot into the limelight with impressive performances in his debut season at Mumbai Indians last year, Krunal, was on the sidelines constantly motivating his young brother. When Hardik blasted his maiden IPL fifty, against Kolkata Knight Riders in a crunch match, Krunal was present at the Wankhede. It was the first ever IPL match he watched live from the stands. "I can take credit for his innings," he joked at that time. Eleven months later, he had made that transition from stands to field, helping MI win crucial matches.
Just like Hardik, there is an air of confidence about Krunal. Well ahead of the auctions he was confident of playing in IPL 9 and showcasing his talent. Five months later, he ended up as Mumbai Indians' most consistent player with the second-best batting average (39.50), the staggering strike-rate of 191- highest in the team - and best economy rate of 7.57 (for bowlers with more than 5 matches).
The road to success wasn't an easy one though. Krunal hadn't played competitive cricket for a year after seriously injuring his shoulder in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2015. Mumbai Indians and Delhi Daredevils were constantly tracking the Baroda all-rounder, but when he went for a whopping two crores (20 times the price of his brother), social media was dumbfounded - Who is Krunal Pandya? And why are Mumbai going bonkers for him?
Krunal, himself, didn't expect so much money because of his long absence from cricket. So did the price tag put extra pressure on him?
"No, it depends on the individual," Krunal tells Firstpost. “I took it positively and prepared well. I didn't have the pressure that I have been bought for two crore so I have to perform. But since the last few months I prepared well for IPL only," Krunal adds.
The resurrection work had begun five months prior to the IPL. There were gym, net and skill sessions along with match simulations with his coach Jitendra Singh. Returning to competitive cricket after a long gap didn’t come easy.
"It was quite difficult. One year is a big gap and suddenly to play a tournament (IPL), which I haven't played before, was all new for me. But that's what it is, if you are mentally tough and ready for the challenge and if you prepare well, you will get the result. I managed to do really well," says Krunal.
Back to full fitness, he warmed up for the IPL with a mammoth innings of 336 off 327 balls in an A division Zaveri League match against YSCA and then was named the best bowler in the Goa Corporate League amidst some of the well-known Indian players.
Krunal Pandya celebrates after reaching 300 in the Zaveri League.
"In the Zaveri League, the main objective was to make sure he spends more time at the crease. As it was a preparation phase, I wanted to make sure that he should get the feel of match situation, improve temperament. He could have easily scored 500," Krunal’s coach tells Firstpost.
Just three matches into the IPL season, Krunal was handed his debut. There were no nerves, just excitement, and he impressed straightaway with an 11-ball 20 against Gujarat Lions at the Wankhede Stadium. He also bowled a frugal spell of one for 20 and from then on the expectations soared. In the next match, against Sunrisers Hyderabad, he cracked 49* off 28 balls coming in at a precarious situation.
Krunal is generally seen as a bowling all-rounder but he was given a free hand by the MI management and it was batting that impressed the most and MI batting coach Robin Singh had a big role to play.
Inconsistent performances from top and middle order meant that throughout the tournament Krunal had to come in at difficult situations and bail the team out. His pre-IPL match simulations were preparing to face last 20-30 balls given his batting position. But he batted at various positions and adapted well to different situations.
While his brother's promotion to No.3 didn't click, MI decided to send in Krunal at that position and in a crunch match against DD, he registered his maiden IPL fifty and career-best T20 score of 86 (off 37 balls) in Visakhapatnam to keep MI’s hopes alive.
“Before the game I told Hardik that I will score a lot of runs in this game, he said, ‘Yes bro, you will do it.’ And after I scored the fifty I just gestured towards him telling him I did it,” says Krunal.
It was his ability to handle pressure that stood out. His calm and composed personality, exactly opposite to Hardik’s, seemed to rub off on his game quite well.
"He's got a good temperament," says Singh. “He can take singles at will and find the gaps as well when needed," he adds.
"I had never batted at No.3. But that's the way it goes, as a cricketer you will get new challenges every game and you should know how to deal with it and how to cope up with it, “ says Krunal. "I played at all the positions - 4,5,3,6,7. But that was my job in the team. I had to go and carry the momentum which the previous batsman had set and play my shots. For me it was not that difficult," he adds.”
Not only was his batting impressive, his bowling also showed how much of a thinking cricketer he is. Though quite often he stuck to the flatter trajectory, he varied his pace well and also did the improbable – he dismissed AB de Villiers both times he faced him. One of which also included scalping Virat Kohli and de Villiers in one over.
"The first over which I bowled in that game I gave around ten runs, so second over I knew they will target me as I was one of the younger players out there who was playing just the second game," says Krunal. "I knew they will come after me. After getting Kohli, I got that confidence. The de Villiers ball [which had him stumped] that I bowled was slower in the air and deceived him in the flight. As Kohli got out in the same over, I knew that de Villiers will not try to go for a big shot and play from the crease itself, so I gambled a bit, bowled a flighted delivery allowing him to come forward and drive the ball and that's what got him in the end. So it was the most memorable moment of the IPL," adds Krunal.
"If the wicket has a little bit of help, then he is a very dangerous bowler," says Singh. ”If it is a flat wicket, then he knows how to contain the flow of runs. He has that ability to bowl dot balls which builds pressure. He can vary the pace well, he can control the game well. He can read the batsman really well, that's one of his very good strengths.”
And amidst the left-arm orthodox spin, there was one Malinga-type fast side-arm slider which surprised everyone.
"I don't know what's it called (laughs) but I practice it in the nets regularly, though in IPL I didn't bowl that ball too many times, but definitely next season you will see that ball coming often." says Krunal.
Hardik and Krunal became the first pair of brothers to play for the same team in the IPL. The two have shared dressing rooms with club and state teams for most part of their cricketing career so far but it was a dream for both the brothers to play together at this level. However, Hardik endured a tough time and was dropped in the latter half of the tournament. It may have been a bitter-sweet experience for Krunal but he believes Hardik will bounce back in style.
"These things happen. This is cricket and every cricketer goes through tough phases. [Hardik] will come back stronger, I have full faith in him," says Krunal.
Amidst the crucial knocks and spells, there were creative celebrations too - imitation of his brother’s stance, fist pumping and bicep showing. It was an enjoyable ride which Krunal termed as satisfying and a great learning experience.
"It was quite satisfying, first of all because when MI bought me in the auction for two crores and showed so much faith in me, it was my job to go out there and perform consistently for them. I think I did that," Krunal says.
"I have learnt lot of mental things, especially when to work hard, how to manage your body and maintain fitness levels. I learnt lot of things and it will definitely help me for the upcoming tournaments, Ranji trophy etc.”
The general consensus that floated around was that Krunal looked a better player than Hardik. Coach Singh summed up Krunal’s IPL performance as good but one which could have been better. Throughout the conversation he stressed on the importance of improvement for Krunal.
“He needs to work more on clearing the boundaries and maybe vary his pace more often. Also, if he works on getting the length right up in the blockhole, it would be really good for him,” says Singh.
From being in the wilderness to suddenly popping up in the spotlight, Krunal's career curve has followed pretty much the same pattern as his brother’s. According to reports, he was even in the reckoning for the Zimbabwe tour but missed out. However, it is far from over for the elder Pandya, for whom the path towards glory has just opened up. His performances have given him the launch pad to scale greater heights. The IPL has this uncanny habit of throwing up hidden talents into the limelight and,who knows, just like his younger brother, the six weeks of IPL might go on to change Krunal Pandya's life!
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Updated Date: May 31, 2016 16:55:21 IST