It was not long ago that cricket lovers across India were amused to see a half-fit player like Hardik Pandya being chosen to lead the Indian Premier League’s second most costly team, the Gujarat Titans (GT), in their debut season.
After the cash-rich IPL saw teams fetch as much as Rs 7,090 crore for Lucknow and Rs 5,625 crore for Ahmedabad, GT and fellow debutant Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) were under constant scrutiny from cricket fans. With the IPL expanding to 10 teams for its 15th season, the Titans secured Indian all-rounder Pandya as their captain for Rs 15 crore before the start of the mega auction on 12-13 February.
Apart from Hardik, the two other players that the Titans drafted were former Sunrisers Hyderabad bowler Rashid Khan for Rs 15 crore and young Indian batter Shubman Gill for Rs 7 crore.
With Team India’s early exit from the T20 World Cup in the UAE, there was a big question mark over whether Pandya is good enough to even be picked by any team if he is not bowling at 100%. In fact, he was asked if he was going to bowl during the upcoming IPL in his first press conference after being named captain. Pandya had nothing to offer then, apart from saying, “It’s a surprise”.
But he kept his answer to that question for some later date. And here he is after completing five wins from six games played so far in the ongoing IPL. Yes, Hardik has surprised everyone not only by consistently bowling at 140 kmph, but also by his calm demeanour while leading his team.
Barring the last game against Chennai Super Kings (CSK), where he had to sit out because of a groin strain, Pandya has impressed everyone with his effective bowling. He has been able to finish his bowling quota in almost every game. And, with an economy rate of 7.56 in the 18.3 overs he has bowled in five matches, he has never given the impression of a bowler who was fighting for a spot in the national squad only a month ago.
When he completes his quota of overs, it allows his team to not depend on the likes of Vijay Shankar or Rahul Tewatia as reserve bowlers.
Leading by example
Before he was picked to lead the Titans, Hardik Pandya last captained India A against Australia in a first-class game. The match was drawn, but his desire to lead a side never diminished.
That’s why when he got a chance to lead the Titans, he never shied away from it. In fact, Hardik is now the third-highest run getter in the IPL, behind Jos Buttler and KL Rahul. The Baroda all-rounder now averages 76 after five games and has a strike rate of over 136. His batting performances at No. 4 have helped his side tide over the early wickets, with top-order batters failing more often in the ongoing season.
Pandya has shown the ability to lead his side with the utmost calm under any situation. It must be mentioned here that he had not bowled regularly in the IPL over the last two years due to recurring back injury concerns. In fact, he had not played a competitive match after the T20 World Cup last year until he began to lead Gujarat in IPL 2022. But once he accepted the leader’s role of the Titans, he looked like a completely different player.
More than anything else, he has been able to motivate his teammates to play their natural game. Under his leadership, opener Shubman Gill is oozing with renewed energy. In the first two games, Shubman scored 96 and 84 runs to anchor the entire innings. The youngster helped the Titans win both these matches and gave credit to Pandya for showing great confidence in his ability. It was Shubman’s solidarity at the crease that later on helped the skipper, David Miller and hit-man Rahul Tewatia to dominate from ball one.
With the likes of Matthew Wade and David Miller in the ranks, the Titans have a very experienced batting line-up in their squad.
Bowling, the real strength
During the February auctions in Bengaluru, the Titans spent heavily on their bowling resources. In fact, the debutant side shelled out Rs 40 crore approximately on just four bowlers — Rashid Khan (15), Lockie Ferguson (10), Tewatia (9) and Mohammed Shami (6.25).
Another thing: Tewatia is more of a batting all-rounder like his skipper and may not even be required during the crunch moments. But he is the much-needed cushion that Hardik needed before the start of the season due to his own fitness issues.
As and when required, Afghanistan’s leggie Rashid, one of the best T20 bowlers in the world, has also been groomed by the Titans as a deputy to Hardik. And he has shown his potential as a leader by beating four-time champions CSK in the last game.
Rashid’s partnership with Shami and Lockie Ferguson has allowed Pandya to control various phases of the game.
To start the season on a positive note, Pandya should thank Shami for giving him a dream start. Shami not just removed in-form batsman KL Rahul on the first ball of their debut season, but also rattled Lucknow’s top batting order in his opening spell. And whenever Shami looked a bit weak, Ferguson had come to Pandya’s rescue with his genuine fast deliveries.
Pandya has often stressed that his team can defend a score even if it’s 15 short of par. That confidence has come because of the early wickets that his bowlers have been able to get at the start of the innings.
The 28-year-old from Baroda is not a novice in IPL, though. He has been put through the grind by Mumbai Indians, for whom he played from 2015 to 2021. Thus he has been part and parcel of Mumbai’s side, winning the trophy four times during his stay.
Hardik Pandya possesses everything that cricket lovers have witnessed in Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Rohit Sharma. It will be interesting to see whether he will be able to maintain his team’s initial winning momentum, or whether a few hiccups here and there will put his character to test later in the IPL season!
Covid-19 hits local squad
Last year’s runners-up Delhi Capitals were hit by a Covid scare in the beginning of the week and had to cancel their scheduled travel to Pune.
The squad was first quarantined in their rooms till door-to-door Covid-19 tests were conducted before taking a flight to Mumbai for their rescheduled game against Punjab Kings at the Brabourne Stadium on 20 April.
A day earlier, Mitchell Marsh and four members of the Delhi Capitals’ support staff had tested positive for the virus. It was only the fourth round of RT-PCR tests that returned negative results.
The Capitals were scheduled to play two back-to-back games in Pune, against Punjab Kings on 20 April and Rajasthan Royals on 22 April.
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