T20 World Cup 2024 | Hardik Pandya has finally ironed out all his weaknesses

T20 World Cup 2024 | Hardik Pandya has finally ironed out all his weaknesses


This has to be considered as one of the most memorable moments of the T20 World Cup. It actually happened after the final ball had been bowled, victory had been snatched away (by India) and defeat had been suffered (by South Africa). It was then that tears were flowing, hugs were being given and high fives were being exchanged, the shock of the robbery slowly getting replaced by the joy of becoming world champions.

This is not an uncommon sight, especially in football. Usually, it happens when a player scores a crucial goal – a blazing run through the defence, or an equaliser at a crucial time – or when the goalkeeper makes a brilliant save from close range or a penalty kick. Not so in cricket. In Indian cricket, it is almost unheard of.

We are of course talking about the kiss that Rohit Sharma planted on Hardik Pandya's cheek, moments after he had brilliantly finished off the final over of the T20 World Cup final at the Kensington Oval. In itself, it was huge, the ultimate display of gratitude and affection from the captain to his deputy. The subtext that preceded it made it all the more meaningful and significant; had Hardik not moved from villain No. 1 to undisputed hero after his heroics in the death overs, he would have been popular again by now. A big thanks to their wonderful captain.

Indian players celebrate victory against South Africa in the ICC Men's T20 World Cup Final.

Indian players celebrate after their win against South Africa in the ICC Men's T20 World Cup Final. | Photo Credit: Deepak KR

Electric undercurrent

Things have been a bit tense outside the Indian dressing room for the last six months, ever since Hardik replaced Rohit as the captain of the Mumbai Indians franchise ahead of IPL 2024. It was not a popular move, it did not go down well with either fans of MI or Gujarat Titans, whom Hardik captained for two years, or fans of Rohit, who is affable and popular and has won five IPL titles as captain.

Rohit took over the captaincy of the franchise from Ricky Ponting midway through the 2013 campaign and instantly changed its fortunes by leading his team to the title the same year. This started a glorious run of successes in 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2020, when Rohit became the only captain after Mahendra Singh Dhoni to successfully defend an IPL title. Shrewd in tactics and endowed with exceptional man-management and leadership skills, Rohit was a captain of the people.

Fans were enraged not by the fact that MI stripped Rohit of the captaincy, but by how they did it. If Rohit was involved in that crucial decision, it did not enter the public consciousness. MI had solid reasons to look beyond Rohit, who was also India's cross-format captain at the time, having played a brilliant individual role in his team's victory in the 50-over World Cup final on home turf. After all, they had the future to consider, and a big auction was looming ahead of the 2025 season. Hardik, a prodigal son who led GT to the title in their debut appearance and took them to the final the following year, was what MI saw as the perfect candidate to replace Rohit. Hardik is both a fine captain and a brand in his own right, so bringing him in made cricketing and marketing sense. The problem is that no one told Rohit this.

Hardik had a disastrous IPL. It was disastrous cricket-wise – 216 runs in 14 innings, a highest score of 46, and 11 wickets at an economy of 10.75 – but also beyond that. His team faltered with one defeat after another, finishing bottom of the table with just four wins from 14 matches. At times, it looked like a group of disparate individuals, although Rohit was a consummate team man.

The loss would have hurt him, especially because it came without warning, but he put the disappointment aside to score 417 runs at a strike-rate of 150, his highest total in 17 years of the tournament. Often out in the outfield, he had little or no tactical role to play, but he would not have been unaffected by the anger that was showered on Hardik across the country.

public Enemy

When he returned to Ahmedabad as MI captain, the all-rounder faced a lot of booing. Initially it was seen as franchise-loyalty; after all, their captain of the last two seasons had struck a deal with the 'enemy'. But when MI went to Hyderabad and Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata, the booing just wouldn't stop. Most damagingly, Hardik was jeered at his home ground, the Wankhede Stadium, where MI had to play seven home matches. Sanjay Manjrekar had once scolded Mumbai fans, telling them to 'behave', but they were paying no heed. With or without reason, Hardik was blamed as the main reason for Rohit's ouster. This didn't go down well with anyone.

Through it all, Hardik exudes courage. By nature he is passionate and enthusiastic, full of life, vigour and enthusiasm. At times he dangerously crosses the line between reckless and reckless, but his jovial nature is not a fa├žade. He must have been deeply hurt by the fact that he had been wronged, but through it all he maintained a calculated silence, while remaining outwardly jovial and cheerful. Only he would know what he was going through, isolated from the larger, experienced group and living a nightmare all by himself.

The fact that he will be Rohit's deputy in the T20 World Cup further complicates the dynamics. How will this work? Will there be tension between the two, if not animosity at all? How will Rohit handle Hardik? How will Hardik react to playing for the country under someone he captained in his own franchise? Will this affect India's campaign?

The truth is, Rohit and Pandya have been in the team for a long time, the former much longer than the latter, and both are at odds with each other. In a way, both were put in impossible situations by their franchises, but when it came to India, that was a closed chapter. They had some unfinished business to do, a World Cup to win. Rohit is not the vindictive, spiteful type; he is a giver, as his teammates can easily see, and he gave Pandya space. Confidence. Trust. Respect. He gave him freedom, and he gave him responsibility. And look at how Pandya repaid the trust.

smart move

Rohit used Hardik to the best of his abilities in the World Cup, keeping him until the last few overs when the right-hander could bat with complete freedom. He used his medium pace bowling at crucial junctures, realising that Hardik's wit, intelligence and skill could come in handy at different stages of the innings depending on the pitch, the opposition and the pressure being applied by the other bowlers. There was a strong elder brotherly presence in both corners, who had first-hand experience of being caught up in a battle of someone else's making. The calm, steady, scholarly presence of Rahul Dravid also put an end to rumours of a dressing room rift.

Hardik responded with confidence to being made vice-captain. It took him a while to find his place in the tournament, but once he found his feet, he performed like the vital cog in the wheel he was always meant to be. At No. 5 and 6, he was the buffer between the top order and his fellow allrounders, Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja; as the third or fourth pacer, he could slip in overs without being noticed and always pose a wicket-taking threat as he is very confident of his short ball.

To no one's surprise, Hardik scored the most runs among Indian batsmen at an average of 48.00 with three not outs in six innings. His strike-rate of 151.57 was second only to Rohit's 156.70 among all batsmen who faced at least 25 balls. He also took 11 wickets, behind Arshdeep Singh and Jasprit Bumrah, and his economy of 7.64 was impressive no matter who looks at it.

changing their perception

To say that he sang the redemption of his life during the thrilling climax of the final against South Africa would be a little unfair because Hardik didn't need to redeem himself; he had done nothing to put himself in that position. But in his last two overs of the World Cup, the 17th and 20th overs of South Africa's chase, Hardik forced fans to change their perception. Not intentionally, because that's not how he plays the game, but through his performance.

Understanding the reality that India could only stop South Africa by building immense pressure through wickets or dot balls, Rohit held off his fifth bowler until he couldn't do any more. So Hardik came in with Heinrich Klaasen and South Africa needed 26 runs off 24 balls. On his first ball, he forced Klaasen to go to Rishabh Pant, it was a big moment that set the Indian fightback in motion. Hardik conceded only four runs in that over, which was one of the reasons they had 16 runs to defend in the final over. David Miller was dismissed off the first ball, Suryakumar Yadav took a brilliant catch, Kagiso Rabada was caught very easily by the same fielder off the fifth ball. India won by seven runs, with the vice-captain picking up three wickets for 20 runs.

That's why, but not only, Rohit kissed on the cheek. It was almost like handing over the captaincy. Rohit knows that Indian cricket is in safe hands, no matter how Mumbai Indians turn out.


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