As IPL captain, Hardik can mould his own destiny

The Australians’ trip to India in early 2017 began with a three-day tour match against India A at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai. Steven Smith and Shaun Marsh got centuries, Shreyas Iyer hammered 202 in 210 balls. Little else stands out from the scorecard, apart from an oddity. It remains, across formats, the only official match in which Hardik Pandya has led a senior representative side in his nine-year career.

Which is why the newly-formed Ahmedabad Indian Premier League franchise’s decision to sign him up as captain has raised more than a few eyebrows. When asked during a media interaction arranged by the franchise on Tuesday about his lack of leadership experience, Pandya, understandably so, didn’t even refer to that obscure match at the CCI. “I led when I was in Under-16,” he offered, before declaring, “You don’t have to be a captain to lead. You lead in a lot of different ways,” almost repeating verbatim what Virat Kohli had said on a recent podcast about not being India skipper anymore.

So, what ways might Pandya lead in? Barring the odd match, his international captains so far have been MS Dhoni, Kohli and Rohit Sharma, and he spoke about picking one leadership trait from each.

“From Virat, I will pick his aggression and passion, his energy which is tremendous, to be honest. From Mahi bhai, I will pick the composure, the calmness, remaining the same in every situation, and trying to see what new things one can add. From Rohit, I would pick that he lets the player decide what he wants to do. These are the three qualities I’ll take from them, and it will be a very good combination.”

One doesn’t need to have watched Pandya for too long to know that the flamboyant 28-year-old likes the attention. He loves to go over the top not only on the field; he also appears to relish the limelight shining on him. He can easily refer to himself in third person. “Hardik Pandya with bat and ball combined sounds better than just batting.”

In that regard, he might even turn out to be an inspired pick. He gives the sense that he wants to be his own man, and now is his chance to be just that. “I genuinely believe it is a new era for us. We can start from scratch, we can create a new culture,” he replied when asked how it felt, after so many years, to be in a franchise that was not called Mumbai Indians.

New beginning

Pandya said he, Rashid Khan and Shubman Gill – the other two franchise picks so far – were excited at the chance to “create their own legacy on their own terms.” It could be a throwaway line among several routinely thrown away at press conferences. Then again, it might be an expression of a real desire to build something the way one has wanted to, but never had the opportunity until now.

Anyway, this is a time in Indian cricket when leadership ambitions are being openly expressed, even by those with no previous exposure to the job. Someone with only a bit of T20 franchise captaincy experience led the country in an overseas Test recently. So, if Pandya feels the IPL provides a pathway for players to come into contention for the national side’s captaincy, it should not sound out of place.

“It’s a good start because the IPL platform gives a lot of new opportunities, new roles where you get similar kind of pressure,” Pandya said. “It’s a right step to go ahead and eventually get captaincy for your country, but you don’t look for that. If it is supposed to come, it will always come.”

Going back to that CCI match – which is admittedly the tiniest of sample sizes – may offer a hint of what Pandya the captain could do. He had opened the bowling both times the Australians batted, and came in at No. 5 the only time India A batted.

That promise has been replaced by a state of such surreal uncertainty that it becomes news if Pandya bowls a few deliveries in the nets now. Pandya himself fuelled the uncertainty on Tuesday. “It is a surprise for everyone,” he smiled at the inevitable query on the latest status on his bowling.

Pandya had bowled all of four overs in India’s five-match campaign in the 2021 T20 World Cup, something he said he did even when he “was not supposed to.” He had felt during the tournament that “everything was thrown at me,” he said on the show Backstage with Boria.

Perhaps that feeling of having been pushed into a corner — regardless of whether it is justified – has contributed to his belief that a good leader is one who stands with a player in his bad times.

“When someone is on a high and doing well and everything is falling in place, they generally don’t need anyone. They are in a good space. I have always believed that when someone is having a bad day, that’s when they need you.

“So as a captain or as an individual, I will not bother someone who is doing well but when they are down, whatever they need, as a person I will be available. That’s the motto I would like to follow and anyone who needs me, I will always be there.”

Wait and watch

Noble proclamation and all, but of course, proof of the pudding is in its eating. That a foreign private equity fund managing an asset portfolio of $122 billion has bought a franchise shows just how incredibly high the stakes have gone in the IPL. Pandya’s captaincy baptism will take place in this crucible of commerce. It will be hard to remain good when things turn bad.

Often, Pandya hasn’t exactly been one to hide his feelings on the field. During IPL 2018, Jos Buttler had overcome a sluggish Wankhede pitch and was in one of his moods. Mayank Markande, the young leg-spinner, made the T20 sin of giving the last ball of the over some air and was mowed for a six. During the changeover, Pandya began to glare at Markande; he continued to do so without stirring from his spot until Markande lurked away leaden-footed to his fielding position, his eyes unable to meet Pandya’s unforgiving ones.

Pandya wasn’t leading Mumbai Indians that night. Maybe some of his own bad days since have taught him to conduct himself differently when he leads Ahmedabad. One will find out in a couple of months.

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