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In many ways, Hardik Pandya has been the poster boy of this Indian team on this tour of England. He has been cussed, ridiculed, and his entire game questioned. Just like the Indian team. Is he a batsman who can bowl or the other way around? Can he do either of it really well? Why does he strut around?
Similarly, Indians have been steaming under the heat. Do the players have the mental strength and technical skill to turn things around? Do they have it in them? Why are they strutting around? One misstep at Nottingham could have brought in panic stations, not from the team management but from outside. The team management didn’t like the talk going on about the possible influx from India A; couple of days ago, a member of think tank had said, “Just wait, we are going to win this game. Then all the nonsense can stop.” For the nonsense to stop, some one had to step up.
Pandya did it. The batsmen had put up the runs that the bowling unit has been hunting after but the bowlers had started badly in the little time before lunch they had at England. Mohammad Shami couldn’t find his radar and Jasprit Bumrah was feeling his way back into Test cricket and England were threatening to charge away like a runaway train. It was first Ishant Sharma who first came up with an inspired spell to push England on the back foot, before Pandya swung them away.
After India put on 329 on the board, Pandya’s first five-wicket haul in Tests helped bowl the hosts out for 161, a first innings lead of 168. The batsmen carried on the good work in the second innings as India were well placed at 124/2, an overall lead of 292 with three days remaining.
Back in Baroda, Jitender Singh, Pandya’s coach and mentor, was thrilled. The memories flooded in – good times, bad times, laughter, tears.
The first memory he cued up was a personal moment of gratitude, an act of guru-dakshina. Jitender was at the nets in Baroda when Pandya arrived, almost immediately after a tour of the West Indies. Surprised to see him, Jeetu bhai, as he is known in the cricketing fraternity, walked over after the session. Pandya asked him to get into the car and drove to a car showroom. “Tu kya soch raha hai? Kya karne wala hai? No, hope you aren’t going to do what I think you are,” Jeetu bhai remembers telling. “Please don’t say no, sir. You have to accept it.” Even as he tried to refuse, a phone call came from Hardik’s brother Krunal and that sealed the deal. Hardik gave him the keys of the Celerio.
No attitude issues
“I can’t understand the ‘attitude’ image he has. People assume too much from body language or his dress sense or something. He is a coconut actually. Bahar hard, andar se soft and emotional,” Jitender says.
He cues up another story from this year. Jitender’s mother was unwell and hospitalised when Hardik came to Baroda after the IPL. “He told me, ‘bhai, I will get 50 lakh now, ek payment aayega. You please take it’. I had to tell him to shut up and go! Aur kya bol sakta hoon is ladke par? Aisa ladke kam milte hain, bhai!”
The two go back a long way. It was with Jitender that Pandya learnt batting and bowling. Back then, he used to be a legspinner. In 2011, when Pandya was 18, Sanath Kumar, one of the best domestic coaches in the country, took over the Baroda team.
One day, at the nets, Sanath felt a lack of fast bowlers for practice. “We were one short that day,” Sanath remembers. Young Pandya walked up to him and said he could bowl fast. “Until then, he was a legspinner.” But Sanath decided to agree to the boy’s wish and it just took an over for astonishment to set in.
“He was bowling over 130kmph, fluent run-up and a nice action.” A surprised Sanath called Pandya over after a few balls to ask him why he hadn’t bowled pace before. “They never let me, sir!” Sanath decided then and there that Pandya would bowl medium-pace now. “I would back you, don’t worry. You are going to play as a medium-pace all-rounder for us from now on.”
Jitender remembers one club game well. All he wanted was someone to take the shine off the ball by bowling some pace before he could use the spinners. Pandya volunteered and “he took five wickets that game. He seemed a natural. Sanath sir was also there to see the game where he also scored with the bat and sir told me, ‘this boy has great potential to play for India’.”
Pandya was 18 then, and his cricketing career began to take shape and change.
Together, Jitender and Sanath, who is still in touch with both, would work on his bowling. Swing in particular, in the initial days. The arm got higher, the wrist position was tinkered with – he has always had the fluidity in the action, Jitender says.
Pandya has used the crease and the angles really well this series. Even at Lord’s where England put on a big score, it was visible. He kept shifting the positions at the crease, and changing the angles at which the batsmen play. “That cricketing intelligence has been the most positive thing in him. I am confident that the more he plays Test cricket, you would see his bowling get better. It was before this IPL that we talked a lot about crease angles, and if you remember, he used it a lot in that tournament. Now, he has carried it in Tests here. Today, I felt his rhythm was really good, he didn’t bowl too many short-of-length balls, and his seam position, which can improve even more I feel, was good.”
It’s the man we seek to understand more and so we come back to the coconut. Jitender has a quiet chuckle before turning sombre as he rewinds to the night of discontent after India had crashed out in the semi-finals of ICC World T20 to West Indies. They needed 73 runs from 36 balls when Pandya bled 18 in an over and the game turned. Later that night, he was devastated.
“I was in Mumbai, watching that game and he called me to come and stay with him in his room,” Jitender says. “He would cry now and then, and was so disappointed. He didn’t sleep through the night. The bad days are over, hopefully. He was dropped but worked so hard to come back through India A tours to Australia and is now becoming India’s all-rounder in Tests. What more do I want?”
Jeetu bhai is happy, Pandya has had a dreamy day with the ball, and India have sprung back into the series with great panache.
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