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How Hardik Pandya turned boos into cheers in India’s T20 World Cup 2024 run | ICC Men's T20 World Cup

How Hardik Pandya turned boos into cheers in India’s T20 World Cup 2024 run | ICC Men’s T20 World Cup

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Hardik Pandya first heard them in Ahmedabad on March 24 in the opening week of the Indian Premier League 2024. The boos that rumbled around the gigantic Narendra Modi Stadium were understandable, of course. Pandya, the former title-winning Gujarat Titans captain, had returned but as the leader of his first IPL franchise Mumbai Indians.

It was surprising, though, that the heckling continued – four days later – in Hyderabad. The stadium in the southern Indian city was a neutral venue, with no offended Gujarat fans in sight. But perhaps it was merely an anomaly, a lingering hangover.

The Wankhede Stadium would surely have been safer territory as the home of the Mumbai Indians and their loyal supporters, who would surely unite behind their team and its young captain against the visiting Rajasthan Royals. Yet, when Pandya joined Sanju Samson in the middle for the coin toss, there was no mistaking it – the fans were booing their own captain.

It wasn’t too long until Pandya was out in the middle again, this time to rescue his team’s batting collapse at 20-4 in less than four overs. He made more runs than any of his teammates but Rajasthan routed Mumbai by six wickets. It was the five-time champions’ third straight loss and not their last one of the season, where they fared terribly and finished last. The hounding of Pandya, too, was just beginning.

Mumbai Indians' captain Hardik Pandya walks off the field after losing his wicket during the Indian Premier League cricket match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians in Kolkata, India, Saturday, May. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Hardik Pandya’s first season back with Mumbai Indians was as their captain and he could only lead them to the last spot on the table [File: Bikas Das/AP]

The turnaround from IPL blues to India’s blue

Nearly two months later, the atmosphere at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in New York was tense. It always is when India play Pakistan. And this was a crucial Group A match in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024.

India had scrapped their way to 119 and Pakistan were on track for victory, 73-2 in the 13th over and Fakhar Zaman starting his innings in ominous fashion.

Pandya bowled an awkward bouncer, the sort that follows and cramps the batter. Fakhar attempted a pull shot but instead gloved the ball and India’s wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant, running back, completed the catch. When Pandya struck another crucial blow to dismiss Shadab Khan in the 17th over, the overjoyed Indian captain Rohit Sharma threw his arms around the all-rounder and lifted him into the air. India won the match 16 balls later.

As all-round performances go, Hardik Pandya’s contributions at the T20 World Cup have been instrumental in helping India march undefeated to their semifinal showdown with England in Guyana on Thursday.

He has scored the third most runs for India – 116 from six innings – behind Rohit (191) and Pant (167). They have come at a strike rate of 145, lower than Sharma’s 159.16 but higher than Pant’s 132.53. Of the 30 players who have netted the most runs, only two – Scotland’s Brandon McMullen (70) and England’s Harry Brook (120) – have higher averages than Pandya’s 58, courtesy of his two undefeated innings against Bangladesh and Australia.

And then, there’s his bowling. Pandya has taken eight wickets for India, behind only Arshdeep Singh (15) and Jasprit Bumrah (11).

For a third or fourth-choice seam bowler who bats at number six, the 30-year-old’s figures are impressive but his individual performances have also stood out.

A valuable 2-14 with the ball helped keep USA in check in New York. As lower-order finisher with the bat, Pandya’s blistering 27-ball-50 pushed India’s total to 196 against Bangladesh in the Super Eights and his 17-ball-27 against Australia was crucial in their 24-run win.

India's Hardik Pandya reacts after dismissing Pakistan's Shadab Khan during the ICC Men's T20 World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in Westbury, New York, Sunday, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Hardik Pandya reacts after dismissing Shadab Khan in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup match against Pakistan at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in New York [Adam Hunger/AP]

Keeping the faith

Along the way, Pandya has been cheered in the stadiums by travelling fans and online by those watching from afar. It’s a marked contrast from the boos that greeted him at home throughout the IPL.

The hostile treatment, stemming from Mumbai’s decision to install him as captain instead of Rohit and intensified by their poor results, was unprecedented. It prompted former India captain and BCCI President Sourav Ganguly to speak in Pandya’s defence, while former player Sanjay Manjrekar admonished fans to “behave”.

Cricket experts speculated on why the hostility had exploded. In his initial seven-year stint with Mumbai, Pandya was part of a squad that won four IPL titles, before he left to captain Gujarat Titans in 2022. He led them to victory in his first tournament at the helm and the following year Titans were runners-up to Chennai Super Kings.

But when Pandya was traded back to Mumbai ahead of IPL 2024 and named as captain, many fans saw the move as an affront to Rohit, who captains India in all three formats at international level. The matter was not explicitly addressed publicly by Pandya, Rohit or Mumbai’s head coach Mark Boucher, deepening suspicions and powering the rumour mill.

As Mumbai finished the season bottom of the table, with four wins from 14 matches, with Pandya’s personal figures of 216 runs at 18.00 and 11 wickets at an average of 34.18, it did little to appease critics.

Yet, the BCCI kept faith with the all-rounder, selecting him for India’s T20 World Cup squad under Rohit’s captaincy. It was not difficult to understand why, despite his lean returns in the IPL.

pandya rohit sharma
Hardik Pandya, who has got India out of trouble with bat and ball, is lifted by captain Rohit Sharma during the match against Pakistan in New York [Adam Hunger/AP]

‘Hardik being Hardik’

When Pandya is fit and firing he does far more than balance the side. He can be a one-man wrecking ball with the bat in hand and crush the opposition into submission with the ball. India has rarely produced potent seaming all-rounders, let alone one so destructive as a finisher.

Rohit underlined Pandya’s importance after his unbeaten 50 against Bangladesh.

“Him batting well puts us in a good stead,” the captain said. “Hardik being Hardik we know what he is capable of. He is a very important player for us, if he can keep doing that, it will put us in good positions.”

As for his other discipline, India’s bowling coach, Paras Mhambrey believes it’s just been a case of Pandya rediscovering his groove.

“I think you can see, in the last one or two matches he bowled, if you compare the IPL and the rhythm now, as a bowler you can see that he has the rhythm,” said Mhambrey. “It’s all about rhythm. And I think he has caught the rhythm.”

His returns in the T20 World Cup suggest he has been able to shrug off any issues with form and put aside any emotional distress he may have suffered during the IPL. That doesn’t mean there won’t be longer-term effects from the scathing abuse heaped upon him at home and we may never know their full extent.

Pandya has always been a flamboyant character on and off the field.

A blinged-up rockstar of modern Indian cricket, he has also been touted as a possible future India captain, based on his two successful seasons with Gujarat Titans.

Now, he is representing his country under the captain he replaced at Mumbai Indians. He has caused the tsunami of antagonism at home by playing for both, the fans who cheered him and those who jeered him, even at his home stadium.

Should Pandya produce a pivotal innings, a timely wicket, a spectacular catch or a crucial runout, that takes India through to the final and perhaps their first T20 World Cup in 11 years, the vitriolic boos will be no more than receding echoes.

For a country obsessed with the game, it’s been a painfully long wait since a world title.

If the prodigal son returns home with a trophy in hand, all will be forgiven and forgotten. After all, everyone loves a winner.

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