Being Hardik Pandya is no easy feat. Constantly enduring public scrutiny and rebounding stronger each time is a formidable challenge.
Hardik’s journey from carefree youth to leadership in IPL and India’s T20I team has followed his coach Jitendra Singh’s mantra: “Do what you believe is right, even if it’s not easy.”
During his teenage years, Hardik would hitch rides on trucks to get to different villages in Gujarat and earn ‘charso-panchso rupiya (Rs 400-500)’ by participating in local tennis ball tournaments. The money he earned from those day-night tournaments helped the Pandya brothers — Hardik and Krunal — purchase their cricketing gear.
They lived in a small one-room apartment at Parishram Park in Bapu Ni Dargah Gorwa – a middle-class residential area. Despite the financial struggles, their father Himanshu – a businessman – ensured that both his children were enrolled in former Indian cricketer Kiran More’s cricket academy at the IPCL sports complex ground, now known as the Reliance Stadium — three kilometres away from their residence.
Himanshu left his steady business – dealing with cars and finances – in Surat and relocated to Vadodara, because the city had a cricket culture. “Hardik was just four or five, at the time, but he accompanied his older brother to practice every day. He would stand in one corner of the ground, trying to emulate Krunal,” says More.
After a few days, More invited Hardik to join. Every morning, the brothers were among the first to arrive at the academy. “Hardik spent most of his time on the field and quickly became a centre of attention for his skills,” says Jitendra, who continues to work with Hardik and Krunal as their personal coach. “He was a top-order batter and was not afraid of taking on bowlers, who were elder to him. He could bat on for hours.
There were times, when after long sessions, he walked up to me and said, ‘ Sir, thoda aur batting kar na hai’ (I want to bat a little longer).” Hardik was known not only for his on-field presence but also off-field flamboyance, with a fascination for hair colours and later for luxury cars. “He would sometimes come for training with coloured hair, but we had to discipline him. There were times when I had to scold Hardik and make him realise his mistake,” Jitendra says.
In December 2009, on a chilly morning, Hardik scored a double century against Mumbai in a U-16 Vijay Hazare Trophy match at the Reliance Stadium, helping Baroda secure a first-innings lead. Hardik batted for over eight hours, crafting 228 runs off 391 balls with 29 fours and a six. It earned him a spot in the U-19 squad for the Cooch Behar Trophy.
Vinit Wadkar, the former Baroda captain and U-19 coach, noticed Hardik’s indomitable spirit. “We were playing a U-19 game against Rajasthan in Jaipur and Deepak Chahar dismissed our regular batters, so I decided to send Hardik up the order (at No.4), hoping he would stop the collapse. And he scored 44 in the first innings,” reminisces Wadkar. “Chahar claimed a five-for in the first innings, followed by four in the second essay. But in the second innings, our bowlers did well, and we eventually won the game. But it was Hardik’s mental toughness in the first innings that impressed me.”
Hardik started bowling relatively late, Initially, he dabbled in leg-spin, but it was coach Sanath Kumar who saw his potential as a fast bowler. “One afternoon, we had a net session, and all our specialist fast bowlers were tired. So, we needed some pacers to bowl to our lower-order batters, and that’s when Hardik volunteered,” Kumar reminisces.
“I was surprised because all this while, he was a leg-spinner. So, I asked him whether he was serious, and he said, ‘Haan Sir, main kar paunga’ (I can do it, Sir). To my surprise, he bowled quicker than the specialist fast bowlers and had perfect control.”
This was in the 2013-14 season. The following year, in 2015, Hardik was snapped up by the Mumbai Indians in the IPL auction for a base price of Rs 10 lakh. In 2017, Hardik repaid their faith by scoring 250 runs and taking six wickets. Consequently, MI retained him for a hefty Rs 11 crore in the 2018 IPL auction.
According to More, his time with MI was pivotal for Hardik’s growth. “That environment, interacting with so many international players and getting to know the owners, made him a different man,” says More.
But just when things were starting to look up, Hardik was carried off on a stretcher after suffering an “acute lower back injury” while bowling during the 2018 Asia Cup. It would continue to trouble him for a while.
Hardik then suffered an irreparable loss when his father passed away in January 2021. Then in November, following the T20 World Cup, Hardik faced a significant setback due to a chronic injury that limited his bowling abilities. Hardik took a break from international cricket to focus on his fitness. “It was a conscious decision as his injury-ravaged body needed a more measured approach,” says Jitendra. Soham Desai, Team India’s lead strength and conditioning coach, had mapped out a recovery programme for Hardik. Suresh Kumar, a Chennai-based physiotherapist, worked with Hardik in Mumbai for a few sessions in December.
During Hardik’s extended break, Jitendra and More meticulously planned a session-by-session routine for his recovery. Initially, the focus was on strength and conditioning, working closely with a physio to optimise his strength, flexibility, and running load. Yoga sessions were gradually introduced, and his workload was carefully monitored. Before his title-winning return, with Gujarat Titans, to the IPL in 2022, practice games in Vadodara were conducted to assess his progress. Once everyone was satisfied with his recovery, he was given the green light.
“His aim is to win a World Cup for the country. He has worked really hard at the NCA and looks all set to chase his dreams, desh ke liye,” says Jitendra.
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