How captain Hardik Pandya fuelled Gujarat Titans’s ride to top?

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In the last over of Gujarat Titans’ innings against Royal Challengers Bangalore at Wankhede Stadium, after Rashid Khan had swung Josh Hazlewood for a massive six, skipper Hardik Pandya walked up to his vice-captain and enveloped him in a warm hug. Rashid then slammed his right glove into Pandya’s with a broad grin. The duo has spoken admiringly of each other and their bonding seems to have played its part in Gujarat Titans’ run to the final in their debut Indian Premier League season.

Rashid has called Pandya a ‘diler’ (fearless) captain. “He is someone who always makes brave decisions, is confident and clear in his mind about what he is going to do. That is very important as a captain, ki diler ho [that he is fearless],” Rashid had said earlier during this IPL.

“As a player, you need freedom and support from the captain. And that is something he has given to every player. He gives you positive energy.”

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That is some endorsement from arguably the world’s finest T20 bowler, who has excelled in franchise leagues around the world under all sorts of captains.

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“It is very important that within a new group, the senior players strike up relationships quickly, and Hardik and Rashid share a mutual respect which is very evident,” Vikram Solanki, the GT director of cricket, told The Indian Express.

In a media interaction ahead of the IPL auction in February, Pandya had spoken about how he, Rashid and Shubman Gill, the three GT draft picks, had the chance to create their own legacy on their own terms at a new franchise.

“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,” Pandya had said then.

It sounded too cliched and too much of a stretch coming from someone who, by his own admission, had led only at Under-16 level. But after ten wins in 14 league games, several of them in the last over of the match, and a nerveless chase of almost 190 in the Qualifier 1 against second-placed Rajasthan Royals, the results have spoken for themselves.

And the traits that Pandya had desired to pick up from three of his India captains have been visible in how his players have gone about closing out tight games, as well as how they haven’t allowed some games to become tight at all.

In the consistently calm finishing exploits of David Miller, Rahul Tewatia and Rashid, this fresh franchise appears to have almost been moulded in the way Pandya has himself played the game all his life: fearless and still focussed, passionate and still pragmatic.

“Any leader shapes the team he is leading in an impression of himself. And that has happened to some extent with Hardik and this group, and we are very proud of that fact,” Solanki said. “I will also add that in order for that to happen, you must have the group that is being led also prepared to walk that journey with the captain. And both the leader and the group need to be commended for that. I want to be careful in not diluting the influence Hardik has had. He has had a huge influence on this team. But he will also acknowledge the contribution of the team.

“Hardik has given his all as far as captaincy is concerned. He is really growing as a captain. He is very giving of his time. He has really got involved in every aspect of our campaign. He is having conversations with each and every bowler. His captaincy has been a big part of our success.

“You would describe Hardik as a student of the game. He likes to know what is going on, he asks questions, he seeks opinions, discussions and conversations.”

Former India head coach Ravi Shastri had also spoken about Pandya’s ability to read the game. “He has tremendous confidence in his ability. He always wanted to bat higher up the order. He can bat like a No. 4 batter. He reads the situations of the game, he reads the conditions, he knows his role and what is required and for captaining the side, the added responsibility has done wonders to his batting,” Shastri had said on Star Sports.

Pandya has also excelled in his new batting position higher up the order, which has needed him to bat longer at a slower tempo than when he used to play the finisher’s role for Mumbai Indians. But perhaps familiarity with the fickleness and difficulty of the role has helped him invest the required belief in the likes of Miller and Tewatia. Both have spoken about the faith their team has shown in them, as well as the role clarity they have been given. It has certainly brought out the best from the pair, who have both had their most impactful IPL seasons yet.

“For this difficult batting position, you need the ability with your technique to find boundaries, you need to be able to manoeuvre the ball, you need to be smart, but just as much you need a character that is prepared to get into the fight at that stage because more often than not, that is where the fight is. And Rahul has certainly displayed fight in abundance. And like Rahul, so has Miller,” Solanki said.

Ahead of the season, there was also another variable: the captain and coach combination. Pandya is still only into his first season as a captain, and can still find himself running up to a bowler after each and every delivery for a chat. And Ashish Nehra is known for standing right in the ear of boundary riders and blasting last-minute instructions during tense moments in a game. How would this pairing go about the ups and downs of an IPL season? Solanki feels they have got along very well.

“Hardik and Ashish have a very good understanding. They come from a very similar mindset as far as what is required to be successful in this format in particular,” Solanki said. “More often than not, you could ask one a question and the other will be able to tell you how they can respond. And that is a brilliant place to be in.”

In the Qualifier, Nehra would gesture to Pandya to give one more over to Rashid, which was duly done. In previous games, too, Nehra has been seen counselling Pandya about the bowling changes from the dugout.

After the Qualifier 1 victory, when he was at the non-striker’s end calming a nervy Miller all the way to a thrilling six-hitting finish, Pandya spoke about how he had started to seek balance in his life. “It has been a constant effort through the last couple of years. In the end, my family, my son, my wife, and my brother as well have played a big role,” Pandya said. “They kind of allowed me to get neutral in life. I look forward to going home and spending some time with family, and that’s made me a better cricketer as well.”

Miller may have been the aggressor in that partnership but Shastri had no doubts Pandya could have achieved the same result had he been facing Prasidh Krishna. “He can play both ways, make no mistake about it. If he were on strike for the final over, he might have done exactly what David Miller did. He kept his cool,” Shastri said.

Miller too had acknowledged Hardik’s role in the chase. “To be honest, Hardik is a cool, calm and collected kind of bloke. He was pretty chilled about the chase.” Miller’s exploits haven’t come in a vacuum, either. “What he did today we always expected from him. But for us it was important to give him the importance, give him that love and give him the clarity as to what we expect from him,” Hardik would say.

Pandya has said he has 23 different characters in his team and they all bring something different to the table. But he has been able to get more out of a lot of them that even some experienced leaders haven’t managed earlier. He may not have needed to do that with Rashid, who is any captain’s delight, but the way he thinks about utilising him reveals something about the kind of captain Pandya is.

“Rashid is an aggressive spinner. It is not something I see a lot,” Pandya said. “He is always looking to take wickets. That is the way we want to go, we want to attack and squeeze with the kind of bowling attack we have. Rashid is my trump card. I know he will get (us) out of the worst situation. I want him to be there when people start hitting because that is where he is the most dangerous. We have seen a lot in the IPL that people are trying to play him out. I don’t want that. I want people to attack him.” No wonder this dileri has impressed Pandya’s Afghan deputy.



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