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Hardik Pandya's persona sticks out like a sore thumb in Indian cricket. (Image Credit: EastMojo)
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The burden of being different: A Baroda boy’s saga

Hardik Pandya's persona sticks out like a sore thumb in Indian cricket. (Image Credit: EastMojo)
Hardik Pandya’s persona sticks out like a sore thumb in Indian cricket. (EastMojo)

In a collective setting where distinct individuals come together in pursuit of a common goal, there is often a tendency to bring uniformity in the group’s identity and character. Indian cricket’s collective identity was characterised partly by the team’s performances on the field and largely on how the nation was perceived.

Moving forward, the team’s identity underwent a gradual shift. The 2000s set forward a period of change where caution and tradition were slowly being replaced by assertiveness, boldness and individuality. The process culminated in the mid-2010s. Hardik Pandya, in many ways, embodies this transformation. He was unlike anything Indian cricket had seen until then. 

In a space that was previously graced by individuals who were brought up to meekly follow the diktat of their higher-ups and subsume their individuality, Hardik unnerved many with his desire to swim against the tide. Cricket’s indisputable cult status in the subcontinent meant that Hardik had to contend not just with the criticism that was levelled at his game, but also the notion of cricketers being saints and larger-than-life figures. Walking into a dressing room that had already witnessed Virat Kohli did not make things any easier for Hardik who had to surmount numerous challenges before setting his foot on the biggest stage.

Jose Mourinho, one of football’s greatest-ever managers, is quoted to have said, Study hard, become a doctor, engineer or teacher. Don’t idolise footballers, some of them are pure trash.” While Indian cricketers enjoy the highest status akin to any popular film star, whether or not their actions should be scrutinised, is a debate that continues to take place. Hardik is probably being forced to be an example for something he’s not made for. He gained fame for his on-field exploits. But, India’s affinity for sporting role models makes it impossible to judge Hardik based on his sporting abilities alone.

Hardik’s misogynistic comments on a talk show in 2019 resulted in a heated discussion in my college hostel room over how it was natural coming from someone like him. A friend remarked, “Hardik, without the tag of a ‘professional cricketer, is simply an unfiltered guy you would encounter in any random social setting”. Oh, the sheer burden of being an Indian cricketer meant he had to own up for his words. In these current times where cricketers are compared to war veterans and expected to have an off-field image as immaculate as their forward defence, Hardik had a hard time getting accustomed to the brickbats.

Before being monitored by MI’s scouts, Hardik’s journey was limited to tennis-ball cricket. His accession to the Test format was always going to be a question mark. Yet again, in his own distinct fashion, Hardik has decided to opt out of Tests. In light of world cricket striving to promote Tests, Hardik’s decision to make himself available for T20s and the IPL doesn’t escape the wrath of critics who are too quick to point this out. The riches of T20 cricket have led to many cricketers gravitating towards the format. Jason Roy, Alex Hales and a huge crop of West Indians have made no secret of their desire to prioritise T20s.

Despite not playing a single first-class game since 2018, Hardik has been in the finest of touches in IPL. He continues to be India’s best bowling all-rounder. His preference for T20s’ riches doesn’t sit well with a certain section that believes cricket is a moral duty where one is supposed to put his nation above all. Hardik comes across as an impostor yet again.

News of his return to Mumbai Indians did not sit well with fans of both MI and Gujarat Titans. The outcry from the blue corner was fair and just. MI as a franchise derive their identity as a collective. Having Hardik at the helm would enmesh his image with the franchise’s identity- a situation which Mumbai Indians’ supporters were unwilling to accept.

One of the factors that led to GT making it to consecutive IPL finals is the team culture. Performances came from unexpected quarters in the most unlikely ways. For a newly established franchise, the role played by the captain in building a sense of togetherness is foremost. Going by how the players were managed while Hardik was at GT, his influence was everywhere.  While leadership has many forms, leading by example and setting the tone for your teammates is something that Hardik had done during his GT days.

In anything concerning cricket or beyond, it is hard to handpick which aspect of Hardik you would want to harness. It is a package that needs to be accepted as a whole. But with identity being an essential aspect of IPL teams, franchises are visibly cautious while choosing their leader. If the success with GT as the captain marked his coming of age, his determination to lead the side that once brought him to the fore is a step towards building his own legacy. 

Night to forget: Hardik's return to Ahmedabad did not go on expected lines. (Image Credit: ESPNcricinfo)
Night to forget: Hardik’s return to Ahmedabad did not go on expected lines. (ESPNcricinfo)

On his return to Motera after switching allegiances, he took the new ball for Mumbai Indians against his former side amidst a hostile Ahmedabad crowd. We had witnessed moments in football where the likes of Luis Figo and Sol Campbell were greeted to a bitter reception when they paid a visit to their former clubs. Hardik’s emotional connection to GT was probably what irked their loyalists, who made their displeasure heard far and wide. 

The Indian team’s successive failures in ICC events since 2013 have called for a fresh approach. At one point, it seemed as if Hardik would spearhead the new approach that the team needs going forward. For a man who defined ‘change’ in Indian cricket by going against the order, he might as well be our best bet. But whether or not it comes to fruition, only time will tell.

For everything that came Hardik’s way since the start of his momentous career, he has negotiated it all with the same exuberance that initially defined him. Every individual on this planet has their own trajectory where they do not fondly look back upon their former selves. Hardik is certainly an aberration to what one would normally expect from a typical Indian cricketer of the past. In a career that was marked by plenty of exceptions and firsts, one can expect plenty more blockbusters coming on the way.

Written by: Anirudh Madedhi


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