BENGALURU: Before the Indian Premier League began, Gujarat Titans were not among the hot favourites to lift the coveted trophy. Apart from being a new franchise, their appointed captain Hardik Pandya was in the throes of persistent woes. The India all-rounder had not played competitive cricket since the T20 World Cup in September-October last year and there were serious doubts about his form and fitness.
In 11 T20I matches in 2021, Pandya picked up only four wickets – he didn’t bowl in most of the matches – and didn’t even score a single fifty. The scenario was even worse as far as his IPL showing in last season was concerned. Hardik had not bowled a single ball in the last two seasons owing to his nagging back injury and had eked out just one half-century in 26 matches.
Odds were stacked against Titans and Hardik when the tournament kicked off in the fourth week of March. But two months is a long time in life and sports. On Sunday, led by an inspired all-round performance by Hardik, Titans thumped Rajasthan Royals by seven wickets in the final to win the championship in their debut year. Ironically, before Titans, Rajasthan were the only team to clinch the trophy in their debut year in 2008.
In the final, Hardik bowled with bouncing vigour and dismissed three crucial batsmen of Rajasthan – Sanju Samson, Jos Buttler and Shimron Hetmyer. Chasing 131, Titans were in a pickle as they lost two wickets quickly but Hardik rose to the occasion and crafted a nicely calibrated innings of 34 to tow his team out of trouble. Deservingly, he was adjudged Man of the Match for his sparkling performance.
His superlative showing in the final was an encore, not a one-off flourish. Throughout the tournament, Hardik played a slew of impactful innings to rewarding effect. During the league stages, his unbeaten 87 against Rajasthan Royals and 67 against Kolkata Knight Riders were top-class innings which catapulted his team to victories. In Qualifier 1, he thumped 40 off 27 balls against Rajasthan to help Titans chase down a daunting target of 188.
Overall, he cracked four centuries and scored 487 runs in the tournament, at a magnificent average of 44.27, and was the highest run-getter for his team. In many matches, he played the role of the finisher to the tee and it was one of the biggest factors behind Titans’ success. When the situation demanded, he wasn’t reluctant to play second fiddle to other batsmen when they were taking on the bowlers.
As a captain, he took new players under his wings, lent support and important inputs and encouraged them to express themselves on the field without reservations. He ensured that there was no hierarchy in the team and everyone spoke their mind and gave suggestions. His bowling changes at critical moments demonstrated his strategic perceptivity.
“I wanted to show at the right time what I’ve worked hard for. For me, my team is the most important. I’ve always been that kind of individual. If I were to have a worse season and my team wins, I’ll take that. I am someone who has always enjoyed responsibilities. They get the best out of me. My next aim is to win the World T20 for India,” he said after the final.
Hardik is no stranger to winning big tournaments. Before Sunday, he had been a part of four IPL finals, playing for Mumbai Indians, and his team had won all of them. But leading Titans to championship win in their debut season as captain is a feat which will rank pretty high in the list of his many achievements.