Hardik Pandya has only captained India in eight T20Is so far but he already looks perfect for the job, writes Shashwat Kumar.
Until about a year ago, Pandya was not perceived as a future captaincy option for India. Even his place in the XI was not certain. He had not enjoyed a great 2021 T20 World Cup, and there was uncertainty over his form and fitness. Much of that changed with the 2022 IPL, where he led tournament debutants Gujarat Titans to the title.
His IPL success, along with Virat Kohli’s resignation, captain Rohit Sharma’s absence, and vice-captain KL Rahul’s injuries suddenly catapulted Pandya to the leader’s slot. He led India to series wins in Ireland and New Zealand and now against Sri Lanka at home.
The success of a team, however, is seldom a good yardstick to evaluate a captain. The best teams often beat the not-so-great ones irrespective of who is in charge of which side. The conversations around Pandya’s captaincy over the past few days, however, have been beyond India’s success with him at the helm.
One of the hallmarks of Pandya’s captaincy has been his ability to make the most of the resources at his disposal. Against Sri Lanka, he was entrusted with a squad that had not played much, let alone together. Yet, it never seemed there was a lack of clarity around the roles players had.
A classic example was how Pandya used Umran Malik throughout the series. Malik has built up a reputation of being a partnership-breaker in the middle overs. In 2022, he took 21 wickets in 17 T20 innings during this phase. At the same time, India did not have many powerplay experts, which might have tempted Pandya to use Umran first up.
Instead, he took responsibility upon himself, bowled with the new ball on the small grounds, allowing Umran his comfort zone. Pandya finished as India’s most economical bowler of the series, but even if he had not, he would have done his primary job – of making the best use of Umran at the cost of exposing himself.
The other impressive aspect about Pandya’s leadership is the confidence he gives to his players. Axar Patel, who enjoyed a breakthrough batting series against Sri Lanka, was effusive in his praise. He admitted that Pandya had asked him to bat freely without worrying about the consequences. The captain had promised to back him irrespective of what happened.
Rahul Tripathi, too, benefited from this vote of confidence when he became the third-oldest T20I debutant for India at Pune. Promoted ahead of Suryakumar Yadav, Tripathi could only muster five runs in his first international innings as India crumbled to a defeat. When an early wicket fell in Rajkot, Tripathi – after having to wait for years to make his debut – could have taken his time, for another failure might have spelt doom. He chose not to.
Tripathi deserves credit for the early counterattack, but it must be appreciated that Pandya had allowed him that comfort zone. In a side that has been top-heavy on anchors until recently, Pandya had given him the license to go all out.
He could have chosen Surya to bat at No.3. That he did not is indicative of how he wanted the newest player to reprise the kind of batting that has fetched him 940 runs while batting at No.3 in T20s at a strike rate of 149. At No.4, he has scored 137 runs across seven innings.
Pandya did not stop there. He made it a point to mention Tripathi’s contributions after the game. He lauded Tripathi for his intent, even against the moving ball, crediting the phase for changing the tide of the game.
Pandya was also willing to put his team into tough situations – uncharacteristic of most new captains. At Mumbai, he said he would have batted first had he won the toss, which goes against what teams have done in evening games in the recent past at the Wankhede Stadium. In Pune, where 10 matches (out of 13) in IPL 2022 were won by the team batting first, he opted to bowl. He entrusted Axar with the responsibility of bowling the last over in the first T20I, despite dew being a factor and Pandya having an over up his sleeve.
Providing cricketers with a long rope, pushing teammates to do better, and throwing himself and the others into the deep end are features usually associated with seasoned captains. Pandya already seems to have reached that pedestal, despite being appointed captain as recently as the 2022 IPL.
It also speaks volumes of how he has turned his career around. A year ago, there were question marks over whether he could consistently operate as an all-rounder, and whether his batting alone warranted a place in India’s first-choice white-ball sides. Cast your mind back a few more years, and he was not shy of getting embroiled in off-field controversies.
Now, Pandya is here, seemingly unrecognisable from the mercurial cricketer who ran into trouble once too often. He has weathered the storm and, to an extent, lived through more ebbs and flows than a significant chunk of cricketers.
As things stand now, he seems the perfect man to lead India into a new T20I era. Of course, tougher tests await and bilateral assignments, especially considering how India have stumbled in global tournaments lately, may not be the best indicator of how successful he will end up being.
But it is also tough to not get excited about India’s newest captain – not just because of how he marshals his troop but also because of all that has happened in the past, and how he has evolved – as a cricketer, a person and a leader.