It’s been four matches for Gujarat Titans in IPL 2022, and though they finally had a day when the opposition came out a bit better than them, the Titans will know that they made Sunrisers Hyderabad work hard for the win.
So far in each of the Titans’ victories, there had been at least one standout performer. In the wake of a Shubman Gill masterclass with the bat, or a Mohammed Shami/Lockie Ferguson/Rashid Khan star turn with the ball, the man who has been solid throughout is the captain. It’s not often that you can describe Hardik Pandya’s feats on a cricket field as flying under the radar, but that’s how it’s been in IPL 2022 so far.
Before we go any further, here’s a stat: the last time Hardik bowled a full quota of four overs for consecutive games was back in 2019. In an era before bio-bubbles and covid and vaccination shots. In IPL 2022, Hardik has not only bowled his full quota for four games in a row, he’s done so with a high degree of proficiency. Hardik isn’t one to do things by half-measure, and so each of his 16 overs has been bowled at full tilt. Speeds of 140 kmph have been regularly hit, he’s bowled the ‘effort’ balls, bouncers and yorkers, and he’s done it all without looking in any discomfort.
He’s brought out some of the big hits too, but Hardik was doing that even when he wasn’t bowling. When he delivers a full quota of overs too, Hardik transcends from being one of the most valuable batters in T20 cricket worldwide, to one of the most valuable players in the format in the world. Against Sunrisers, even though the eventual score of 50* off 42 might seem un-Hardik like in terms of pacing, he actually showed excellent nous while batting and had to deal with a bowling attack that nailed their plans excellently. He had started brightly, but the loss of Matthew Wade and then David Miller meant he had to rein himself in a bit. He had then set himself up for a death-overs blast, and even connected beautifully a couple of times, only to be foiled by pin-point bowling and fielding. But it showed an under-appreciated facet of Hardik’s batting, that he had the flexibility to be both builder and destroyer.
He is, now, doing the job of a frontline bowler while being among the most destructive batters in the world. And then there's his captaincy, where he has marshalled a bowling attack that needs his strike bowlers deployed expertly to maximise their effect.
As captain, Hardik also does get to decide where he’ll bowl, and his decisions have been those of a man leading from the front. In three out of four games so far, he’s taken the new ball. That has allowed him to use Lockie Ferguson in tandem with Rashid Khan in the middle overs.
Against Delhi Capitals, he lost Varun Aaron after just one over, and had to juggle his bowling plans on the fly against a powerful batting line-up that was chasing a par total. Hardik passed that test unscathed. Of course, you can only do well as captain if your bowlers stick to their plans and execution, but a good captain can judiciously tap into the flow of the game and the match-ups to give his bowlers greater chance of success, and Hardik did exactly that.
He's also making a habit of getting the opposite captain out, and in a league where eight of the ten teams have key top order batters as captains, that can only bode well. He got Mayank Agarwal against Punjab Kings, and then Kane Williamson against Sunrisers. In both games, he brought himself on for his second spell at moments when the opposition was going well, even when he had other options to go to, such as Shami or Ferguson. But it’s not Hardik’s way to do anything other than lead from the front. So he bowled at a rampaging Liam Livingstone and then at an in-control Williamson and a free-flowing Rahul Tripathi in the middle overs.
His leadership has not just been restricted to things on the field. “It has been great so far,” Rashid Khan said of Hardik’s captaincy after the Sunrisers game. “As a player, you need a kind of support and freedom from the captain, and that is something he has given to each and every player. When you have difficult things going on in the mind, for young players it can get pretty hard to handle that, but he’s someone who always supports the players and gives you that positive energy. I think Hardik is leading the team really well so far. We enjoy playing with him.”
When your players enjoy playing under you, you’ve won half the battle as captain. When your own game is ticking over nicely, it’s a significant bonus. Hardik may have tasted defeat as captain for the first time against Sunrisers, but he’s continuing to take steps forward on the road to leadership.
- Saurabh Somani