IPL 2022: From Villain to Hero, Hardik Pandya’s Redemption is Complete, For Now
Hardik Pandya has now been part of five IPL-winning campaigns.
When India was knocked out early from the T20 World Cup in 2021, everyone was scanning the squad to look for a villain.
After much searching, the spotlight was levelled on one man, Hardik Pandya- the hero who promised much but ended up being the villain of the line-up. He was ‘responsible’ for everything from India losing to Pakistan and New Zealand, to being knocked out of the World Cup, as well as other major issues plaguing the country.
Pandya had promised much to a lot of people, including the chairman of selectors Chetan Sharma. He had given an undertaking that he would bowl a lot during the IPL that preceded the T20 World Cup and solve the issue of balance for the Indian XI.
But during IPL 2021, Pandya hardly bowled, he promised to deliver in the World Cup instead. However, even that proved to be a dud and in the end, Pandya was labelled the villain of the piece.
Injuries and Time Away
India’s then all-format captain Virat Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri had staked their reputations by backing Pandya to the hilt. They wanted a Pandya who could just play above anyone else in their T20 XI. He was meant to be the match-winner, the man who could provide the balance and tilt the scales in India’s favour.
But since the time he got injured during the 2018 Asia Cup at the Dubai International Stadium, Pandya was half the cricketer he was before. He underwent a back surgery and missed a lot of cricket. He did return for the 2019 ODI World Cup, but was never the same. Pandya then again got injured, missed more cricketing action, and so, Indian sides struggled to strike the right balance in all formats.
Pandya did return on a short white-ball tour to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2021 as a key player in a second-string squad, but it was not the same. He was no longer the favoured cricketer across all three formats and that proved to be a huge issue for Kohli & Co.
The T20 World Cup in 2021 proved to be the final straw when it came to L'affaire Pandya. It seemed like the selectors felt hard done by and they had enough of the saga.
The selection panel and the new team management led by Rahul Dravid could not wait forever for Pandya to start bowling. As a batter, he would have walked into any short format XI, but it is his bowling which provides the perfect balance. Pandya became the hate figure and was blamed on every platform for India’s early exit from the 2021 T20 World Cup.
What frustrated everyone even more was that Pandya then opted out of the entire domestic season, preferring not to turn out for his state side Baroda.
This was a decision which did not sit well with a lot of powers that be and there were even reports that Pandya had told the selectors not to consider him for any format for India. This was a drastic step. At that stage everyone wondered if this was the end of the road for the 28-year-old.
Team India Looked For Replacements
On the forgettable South Africa tour earlier this year India missed Pandya and even Ravindra Jadeja as the two multi-skilled players who could have prevented a disaster in the ODI series. But the team had learned to move on from the younger all-rounder and went in for new boy Venkatesh Iyer. Now Iyer is more a batter who can bowl unlike a Pandya who can walk in for both his skills.
India kept yearning for ‘someone like’ Pandya, but there was no one to be seen. Over the 18 months, Shardul Thakur has emerged in that role, but in Test matches. Previously, the selectors have plumped for the 3D Star, Vijay Shankar, but that has proved to be counterproductive. In domestic cricket, selectors have seen the likes of Ripal Patel, Prerak Mankad and even thought about recalling Himachal’s captain Rishi Dhawan, but no one came close to the original Pandya.
In the meanwhile, Pandya went off the radar. He worked incognito in nondescript areas, trying to improve his cricket skills and fitness in Baroda. India returned from South Africa and as always, decimated rivals at home across formats under a new captain Rohit Sharma.
IPL 2022, and Gujarat's Confidence
The buzz around IPL 2022 gained currency; new franchises had come on board. Meanwhile, Mumbai Indians offloaded a lot of their players including the Pandyas (both the brothers). Since the villain theme was still the buzzword, everyone felt Mumbai had done well.
Little did everyone know that there was going to be a twist in the tale.
As with everything else, there was confusion around one of the new franchises in the IPL, thanks to what else but silence from the BCCI on the antecedents of the Gujarat ownership. Finally, when the veil was lifted, Gujarat announced their three draft picks.
Quite surprisingly, despite having no cricket behind him, Pandya was one of the three choices alongside Rashid Khan of Afghanistan and young upcoming star Shubman Gill. What’s more Pandya was even chosen as the captain. This was a huge surprise. It was a gamble being played by Gujarat because they knew they needed a local boy and that too a superstar in their mix. But captaincy? That was a big call.
No one would have ever predicted that the man who had not played a competitive game since November 2021 could work magic from March 2022. But Pandya was confident, he even promised publicly that he would bowl.
He had a new coach to work with in the maverick Ashish Nehra, a calm operator in Gary Kirsten as team mentor and former England ODI opener Vikram Solanki as Director of Cricket. However, the side that they had picked at the auction was summarily dismissed by all concerned as no-hopers. Pandya too started off slowly when the tournament began.
He did not bowl as much as he had promised, but the side was quick off the blocks. They put together a combination that found ways to conjure up wins, found new heroes every time and almost always extricated themselves from a tough situation.
Bowling became the big strength for Gujarat and the surprise package throughout the season was who else but their captain- Hardik Pandya. During the season, Pandya did miss a couple of games with injury and everyone thought, well, here we go again. But he did return in time to lead Gujarat to the playoffs. On the night of the grand finale, Pandya once again stood out. This time first with his bowling, then captaincy and his calm approach with the bat in a low-scoring title bout.
The Pandya story finally ended on a high with the captain of Gujarat turning from a villain to a hero after seven long months. He is now the toast of the town, with some even wanting him to lead India in T20Is first in the last two games against South Africa and then on the short tour of Ireland.
Earlier, Pandya could do no right, now he can do no wrong. There are even calls for him to be added to the Test squad for a one-off match in England. Now praises are flowing in from all corners.
Pandya and Indian think-tank know only too well that all it takes is one big failure for all this to change. For now, let Pandya enjoy the high of winning an IPL title five times as a player and enjoy the celebrations for a while.
Who knows we may be back at the same stadium in Ahmedabad in November 2023 watching Pandya doing the same act, but this time for India! Afterall, there is no harm in dreaming a bit, is there? Pandya is now the hero after all.
(Chandresh Narayanan is a former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC, and the Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, Cricket Editorial consultant, a professor and cricket TV commentator.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.