A packed Narendra Modi International Stadium cheered ‘ Aava De’ (bring it on) as Gujarat Titans defeated Rajasthan Royals quite convincingly in the Indian Premier League final. After conquering the league and clinching the title on the team’s debut season, captain Hardik Pandya and his men waved at the crowd, thanked them for the support throughout the tournament and even did a roadshow in Ahmedabad the day after the summit clash to show their ‘love’ to the fans.
And, it’s this ‘love’ that got the Titans going this season.
The lead up to the tournament wasn’t perfect. After successfully bidding for the franchise in November last year, there were uncertainties whether the Irelia Company Pte. Limited (CVC Capital Partners) — the owners of the franchise — would be able to acquire the requisite clearance because of their alleged links with betting companies overseas. But even before the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) paved the way for the team’s participation in the tournament, just weeks before the mega auction, the franchise secretly chalked out a plan on who it would recruit as its coaching and backroom staff.
The owners were particular that a team from Gujarat had to have a leader from the state and they did not look beyond Hardik Pandya. It was an obvious, but risky choice as the star all-rounder had not played any competitive cricket for a while and there were questions about his fitness.
But taking many by surprise, the franchise showed faith in Hardik and handed him the responsibility of captaincy — something he had never done before — and built its core around him with Rashid Khan and Shubman Gill. In the support group, Vikram Solanki was appointed the director of cricket. Gary Kirsten was roped in as the mentor while Ashish Nehra joined as the head coach — another move that raised eyebrows because of the duo’s ‘not so impressive’ track record as coaches in the tournament.
But the franchise knew it was banking on the right people.
In the auction, too, it made some surprise buys in David Miller, who many thought was past his prime, Rahul Tewatia, who looked rather pale after his six-hitting spree in Sharjah two summers ago, and India discard Wriddhiman Saha.
The choices looked baffling back then. But the Titans think-tank knew that they were taking a calculated risk by putting their money on the old warhorses.
“The plan honestly was just to put together a balanced team. We were lucky in the first three picks, it allowed us the opportunity to build the nucleus of the side. [Having] Hardik Pandya, Rashid Khan and Shubman Gill was a good starting point for any team. That allowed us to then build on that. We were very happy when we walked away from the auction,” Solanki told Sportstar .
A former England international, Solanki had previously worked with Royal Challengers Bangalore. So, banking on that experience, he felt that they had picked a ‘strong and balanced squad’ in the auction.
“There was a lot made of our squad, there was a lot made of each and every squad in the IPL. That’s fine, they are just opinions and everybody is entitled to their opinion. We were very confident and happy,” he said.
And after two months of intense cricketing action, it was evident that the think-tank’s strategy paid off as not only Miller, Saha and Tewatia delivered, their efforts also guided the team to its first-ever title.
And ‘Killer Miller’ guided the team to the final, hitting three sixes off Prasidh Krishna in the final over of the first qualifier at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, captain Hardik spoke about showing love to Miller — who had come to the franchise after failing to cement his place with the Rajasthan Royals in the previous two editions.
“It kind of shows that if you show love and importance to a particular player, he can flourish and how! A lot of people counted David Miller out, but for us, he was a match-winner from the time we bought him in the auction. It was important to give him that importance, clarity on what we expect from him. If he fails, it’s okay, it’s just a game…” Hardik explained.
For the captain, it was a turnaround tournament. Moving on from Mumbai Indians, Hardik had a lot to prove. He hadn’t bowled for months and a nagging injury meant he had no exposure to international cricket since last year’s T20 World Cup. But it was redemption time for Hardik, who amassed 487 runs and picked up eight wickets including three in the final.
“Throughout the season, I've always enjoyed responsibility. It kind of gets the best out of me. And I’ve always been someone who wants to lead from the front,” Hardik said after lifting the trophy, “So, it makes more sense if I say it and I do it first…”
Even as the skipper led from the front and his deputy Rashid stepped up by spearheading the spin bowling department, others, too, had specific roles, which they played to perfection.
Saha is one such player. After opting for Matthew Wade as the opener alongside Gill for the first five games, the team management brought Saha in and the stumper-batter enjoyed a rather successful tournament, amassing 317 runs. “It was one happy unit, where we could express ourselves and communicate. There would be open sessions over breakfast or meal or even during team sessions, where all of us spoke to each other about our plans and vision,” Saha said. “That approach helped us in reaching our goal as a unit and we all knew what the plan would be…”
For a new team, creating this one happy unit was the key.
Even Solanki agreed. “At times you also need to be supportive when guys are going through a bit of a tough time. It is probably more important. It was evident that all in the team were willing to do that, whether he was an experienced player or not,” he said.
“I’m sure Hardik leaned on the experienced players. I’m sure he had lots of conversations with the experienced players. In tough pressure situations, you need all the support you can get. You draw on all the experiences of the group. So I’m sure that Hardik valued all those contributions,” Solanki said.
Featuring in his maiden IPL, R. Sai Kishore, a consistent performer in domestic cricket, played in five matches and scalped six wickets. Similarly, Yash Dayal made every opportunity count as he picked up 11 wickets in the nine games that he played. It’s a similar story for B. Sai Sudarshan or Abhinav Manohar.
More than performances, the IPL is about handling the pressure in crunch times and not getting overawed by insane price tags. With Hardik, Nehra and Kirsten around, the Titans seemed to have approached the tournament with a clear plan — taking one game at a time and being consistent.
“One of the things that we were conscious of or actually just happened was that we were very much focused on the next game. Results went our way early. It does build a little bit of momentum, but we, by the nature of the coaching group and the nature of the playing group, never really started looking too far ahead. We were absolutely mindful to review, reflect on each performance but then just look at the next game, then review, reflect upon that performance and then look at the next game,” Solanki said. “We never thought too far ahead.”
The director of cricket also stressed on the fact that the players were backed throughout. “If you were to speak to any of the players, I think you would get a sense from them that the coaching group was entirely invested in them as players and as people. We were prepared to work hard with them,” Solanki explained.
That was quite obvious with the way the team utilised Miller and Tewatia, who emerged as match-winners.
“We practised hard, we were happy to have discussions — both individual point of view in terms of their role as well as looking beyond for them as cricketers. I think that is what gave them a sense, I would hope, of them feeling backed…”
It was not easy to battle past the odds, stun champion sides like Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings and eventually clinch the title.
But in its first season, Hardik’s men have done it by being fearless.
The cricket enthusiasts will always remember their brand of cricket. They’ll remember the Titans.