Ever since he burst onto the cricket scene in 2014 with a blitzkrieg of a knock for Baroda against Mumbai in the zonal Twenty20 tournament, Hardik Pandya has hardly looked back. The 24-year-old has had a dream run for a while now, and his impressive performances with the bat and ball have even prompted Virat Kohli to say that India’s long search for a pace-bowling all-rounder may finally come to an end.
In the middle of a commercial photo shoot, after changing his costumes swiftly, Hardik reveals his personality, his bonding with brother Krunal, why he quit school before SSC and his cricketing philosophy during a chat with Sportstar .
From November 2013, when you made your first-class debut, up to now, how much has life changed over the years?
Answer: Big time: what I was four years back and what I am now, it’s quite different. As a person also, I am quite different. Obviously, the game has taken different strides. Those were like my struggling days. Now I am kind of settled in life. Just that now I am more focussed on my game. That’s it. Yeah, I am enjoying the time.
And how much has Hardik Pandya changed as a person?
Not much. I would say I am slightly (more) mature now. Otherwise, I am the same. My personality is the same, everything else is pretty much the same. Obviously, with age you tend to mature, so that’s the only thing that has changed.
On your first-class debut, you batted at No. 7 and hardly got to bowl. Did you have any apprehension then about whether you belonged to the higher level?
See, as a professional cricketer, you tend to question yourself: Do I belong here and all that. But that’s only because you have not seen much. Once you play a certain number of matches at a certain level, that goes away. When I made my Ranji Trophy debut — taking the leap from Under-19 to Ranji — it was quite big at that time... even now, so I had that question. But with time, as I started playing more, it slowly went away and I grew in confidence.
Then came the zonal T20s that was one of the milestone moments for you. How did you take on players of the calibre of Zaheer Khan at the Wankhede Stadium? Did you know John Wright was watching?
Obviously not. I don’t really look at the stands and all. I remember once Kiran sir (Kiran More) told me: ‘Never play to the balcony’. That’s the theory. I didn’t know that John Wright was watching. And even if I did, I was not sure that I was gonna do well. You cannot afford to think about who is watching you and who is not. Otherwise, when we play for India with at least 30,000 watching us, it would be difficult to keep giving our best. I didn’t know he was watching. But yeah, I was lucky that I played well against a top Mumbai team with everyone else watching.
What did Wright say to you after the match?
He just said, ‘Well played, young man.’ He was quite happy. It feels good, it feels nice when someone from an IPL team notices you. Because, after that (domestic cricket), you want to play in the IPL. And if someone from an IPL team watches you score a lot of runs and likes your knock, it feels good.
Thereafter, for the next two years, you hardly put a foot wrong. What is it that worked for you then?
To be honest, there wasn’t anything extraordinary that I did during those two years. I had been scoring even earlier in domestic cricket, and I was okay in those two years. Only the IPL was big. Otherwise I don’t think I had an amazing performance as such. And anyway, I don’t get satisfied with my performances, so I was constantly trying to improve. 2016 was quite hard. You go through those phases. You learn from those hard phases, you realise the aspects on which you need to work hard. I went through it and since then, I haven’t looked back.
How difficult was it to handle the stardom that came along?
Not very difficult, but obviously for someone from Vadodara, who has not seen much in life and all of a sudden he gets name, fame and everything, he, obviously, gets excited. But once you get used to it, you’re pretty chilled out about it. You kind of start soaking up everything. I kind of went a little bit here and there, but with the kind of personality I have, that’s bound to happen. Anyway the youngsters nowadays are like that; they kind of drift away. The same happened with me. But I was smart enough to come back very quickly. It took me a couple of months to sort of understand what’s right and what’s not for me. But I don’t regret or complain about anything during that phase. That taught me a few things like what works for me, and that made me stronger.
Was there any particular moment that made you realise hthat you should hold yourself back?
The biggest drawback and the biggest disappointment I had in my life was that I changed myself because of people — which I don’t appreciate. I don’t play for anyone, I don’t play for anything, and I don’t do anything for anyone. I started kind of getting this feeling that I was changing because of people who were trying to get me into the society. I don’t complain, because they have not known someone like me. I express myself the way I want to — I wear different clothes, wear different glasses, do my hair differently... anything. So I was trying to get into their circle, but then I understood that’s not me. I am different and I have to keep my character. I went here and there, but once I realised that, I straight away went back to the I-don’t-care-thinking personality.
Did your poor performance in the 2016 IPL and your subsequent exclusion from the India squad sort of bring you back on track?
You can say that. When I was dropped from the team — I mean I only missed one series, against Zimbabwe — I had time to work really hard. It is something all the cricketers do whenever they have some time off, but to get so much time off is difficult nowadays. I got the time and I thought I could work hard on a few aspects of my game and slowly things started changing.
Read: Dual role, single-mindedness!
How much did the India ‘A’ tour of Australia last year help you?
The ‘A’ tour helped a lot because it gave me proper time. I am not someone who actually likes to go out, so to be following a set regime for two months helped a lot. And I had good company — an excellent set of team-mates, a mentor like Rahul Dravid, and Paras Mhambrey (the bowling coach) was also there. I had all the time to think about my game and how to get my confidence back. I had a good tour and straight away it brought me back into the reckoning.
Last year, you told us that Rahul Dravid, during the India ‘A’ tour, helped you understand that cricket is a game of situations. Can you recall any specific instance that stressed on this point?
He believes in it. Even recently I read an article where he said he does not believe in natural abilities. It is a fact. You can’t just be hitting everything when your team requires you to play in a certain way. It’s all about the team. For me, it’s the same. I don’t have any personal agenda, I don’t have an eye on individual records. When a team-mate was asked about his plan for a match during a team meeting (during the ‘A’ tour), he said: “I’ll play my natural game.” And then Dravid explained there’s nothing like a natural game. I kind of understood what he was trying to say. If your team is like 45 for six, and if you go out and hit in the air, get out and say it’s my natural game, that’s not one’s natural game. For me, it’s stupidity. Natural game may help in certain situations, but not all the time. He (Dravid) always cited examples of being smart enough to tweak the game according to the situation. I am fortunate enough to learn it from the legends. Even the likes of Virat (Kohli) and M.S. (Dhoni) keep discussing the same. It’s really helped me.
How big a moment was playing Test cricket?
Obviously it is big. Let’s be honest, everyone wants to play Test cricket because everyone watches Test cricket. Now, I don’t know, but when I was growing up, Test cricket was something really big. One-day cricket was entertainment, but Test cricket was the real thing. Even I wanted to play, but once I got in, I tried to relax and not exert too much pressure on myself about playing Test cricket. After all, it’s just a game, it’s a sport. We should all understand one thing, that after all, it’s only a sport. And I take it that way. I might do well, I might not do well in the next game. That’s how it should be. So when I got to know I was making my debut, it was all about expressing myself and playing my normal game. I kept it that way and it helped me. I was calm. Obviously there were a few butterflies in my stomach when I walked in to bat. But once I was out there, I settled down pretty quickly.
In your early days, you were one of the few batsmen who could bat with both top-hand and bottom-hand grips. Nobody really tried to change it? How much did it help?
I am never shy of experimenting, and one thing I am good at is adapting quickly. For a minor amendment in technique, at times people take months to get used to it, but I can do it in a matter of days. But I keep on changing. If it works, it works, otherwise I can always go back to the previous technique.
Is that why you never appeared surprised or seemed to be under any pressure when you were promoted to No. 4 in ODIs recently?
Yeah, it was an opportunity for me, not added pressure. I wasn’t surprised at all. I know I can bat anywhere, so it was okay if the team wanted me to bat higher. I would be surprised if I think I don’t belong there. I was pretty cool about it.
Six-hitting has been synonymous with you since your early days. How do you choose a ball to strike?
I used to try hitting sixes since my U-16 days. I used to also get out while trying, but most of the times, I would clear the 30-yard circle and get boundaries if not sixes. I always used to like playing the big shots. I practised a lot. I always used to practise long-hitting — range hitting, as they say — and I used to enjoy it.
For a few batsmen, the lofted stroke is a pressure-release shot? How about you?
With me, it’s nothing like that. If the ball is there and if the situation demands, I’ll go for it, and I know I can clear the boundary. I don’t hesitate. I’m not a what-if man. I may get out while playing the shot but while hitting, I never think about ‘what if’. I may use it differently later on in my career. I am still new to international cricket and everything is going well now. So for now there’s no need to create a pressure-release shot. For now, if the ball is there, I will go for it.
How much has your fitness regime changed over the years? Until very recently, you seemed to be someone who was more cricket-fit than being an athlete as such...
I used to train from the start. I had power but my body type is something that doesn’t have muscle. I may be lifting the same weight as someone who is masculine, but I don’t look as masculine because of my body type. I look lean. As for my fitness regime, it’s changed a lot over the last few years. I am more aware about sleeping, training and eating patterns. And touchwood, I am kind of blessed that I don’t really have this habit of eating bad food. I don’t have so much craving for street food. If I get, I eat once in a while, even now. Once in a blue moon, I do let myself loose and eat what I feel like.
Going back to your early days, how was it having a brother who is also a cricketer?
It was always good because first of all, we would be travelling together. Since we started playing cricket, we always travelled together. Obviously, now that I have been selected for India, things have changed. But Ranji Trophy and all, it was always me being selected first and Krunal joining the squad the next year. In the IPL also, the same thing happened. And you never know, it could happen for India as well. He is there or thereabouts. I share a great bond with him. We are very close. We don’t go out of our small circle of friends and family. Between us, trust is very important. I trust him blindly. Any decision of mine will go through Krunal. Even if I have made a certain decision, I always make it a point to share it with Krunal. Even for simple things, there are times when he knows that if he says something about my decision, I may get angry and cut the phone call, but we both know in a matter of minutes we’ll be back to normal. He understands that. I am glad that I have a brother like him.
So, is cricket the focal point of discussion even at the dining table?
We don’t talk cricket in the family. My father says, ‘play well’. That’s it. Even my brother doesn’t discuss cricket with me now. We might pull each other’s leg — if I have played a bad shot and got out, he might have a go at me, but that’s it. Otherwise we have always avoided discussing cricket at home.
You have said Krunal manages your finances. But now that he is also successful, especially in the IPL, what is the support system in place for you?
I have my cousins, Mayur and Vaibhav, who take care of everything I want. Like I said, I have a very small circle of my people and they are around all the time. They keep an eye on all our needs. And anyway, we have the team (Reliance, his managers) as well now. We don’t want to involve my father anymore because I want him to relax and enjoy his life.
Growing up, did you and Krunal idolise any famous sports siblings?
Not really, but growing up in Vadodara, we had Irfan Pathan and Yusuf Pathan playing together. I mean we used to think it’s so cool playing together and soon we also played together. We didn’t really aspire to play together, we were just enjoying our own cricket and trying to improve at it. We didn’t really want to copy any of the cricketers as such.
Going back a little further, when you decided to quit school after the ninth grade to pursue cricket, how did your parents react?
It was a gradual process, actually. A school that claimed to have great interest in cricket asked me to join it to improve its cricket team. It is a big school and we couldn’t afford it, but the school said they will take care of my fees and all. They said they will ensure I pass the exams and I just needed to keep performing for the Under-16 school team. And we lost in the first round of the schools tournament. All of a sudden they changed their stand. They started demanding fees. It was a premium school and we just couldn’t afford the fees. They said they cannot promote me from Standard IX, so we waited for a year. And the next year, it was the same story, so I quit the school. Anyway, I didn’t have much interest in studies, plus I was bad as well. I would have liked to mention the name of the school, but I won’t. No free publicity to anyone!
Do your parents still feel that you should have completed your graduation, or even now should get a degree?
Nahi yaar ! (No, friend!) If I would have kept on studying and not played cricket, they would be upset. They just let me be myself. At that time, I knew if I keep playing cricket, I’ll make it. I had that confidence.
With the kind of thrust we have on education in India, especially in smaller cities like Vadodara, how did all of you in the family put up with the taunts from the social circle about you quitting school?
We as a family don’t think about the people. Even if they were calling us names, we simply didn’t care. It’s about us, our lives, our family, so we had to make decisions that will serve us well. We didn’t care — at least I didn’t. Krunal and I were taught how to behave with people. And both us continue to discuss on how to be better human beings rather than worrying about anything else.
Do you set goals in life?
Not many. I just want to take things as they come. I want to live in the present and not think too much about the future. I just get excited by a few things, that’s it. I want to live in the present. I do get excited about a few series. South Africa, I am definitely excited about it. New Zealand also I am pretty excited. I like to play big teams. I’m pretty excited about the role I have. I might not do as well as expected, but that’s okay — that’s part and parcel of the game. It’s important to get things right before a game. If I prepare well, I don’t think anything will stop me.
You could end up playing a bigger role in the next 18 months, with India set to play overseas. Has that already started playing on your mind?
I don’t think much about it. For me, it won’t change. My approach will be the same as it has been for a series in India. It (the challenges) might be difficult but obviously difficult things are nice. When you overcome difficult things, the happiness and the confidence you get is nice, so I look at it in the same way.
How do you react when you are referred to as the next Kapil Dev?
As I have said earlier, if I achieve even 10 per cent of what he has in his life, it would be a huge achievement for me. I don’t think anyone needs to compare me with anyone. I may have sounded laughable when I said two years ago that India won’t need an all-rounder now (that I have arrived). I don’t need comparisons with anyone. They are greats, let them be greats. The tag that they have, they deserve it. Let me play as Hardik Pandya, it’s simple as that.
Where does this confidence come from?
It’s natural. It’s not something I have to try for. I don’t think about what people think of me. I don’t do anything for people. I do it for myself. Simple things, like a hairdo... if I go to a salon and feel like doing the hair in a specific way, I do it. It may not look nice to people, but for me it does. If you think you are looking nice, the rest doesn’t matter. Same is the case with playing. If you are confident about the way you are batting, that’s what matters. If you start doubting yourself — am I doing this right? Do I need to change something? — then the problem starts.
At times, such confidence is interpreted as arrogance. How do you avoid that?
I know how to talk to people. I don’t interact with people who don’t understand me. Simple as that. No offence. I don’t feel bad, so let them not feel bad. I am in my zone, let them be in theirs. If they feel I am arrogant, let them come and talk to me and they will know I am not. Like I said, I don’t think what you think. My mood or my action doesn’t depend on what people think.