It is not easy to be constantly under public scrutiny and come back stronger each time. It is equally difficult to overcome a long and nagging injury, poor form and eventually emerge as a match-winner. In short, it’s not easy to be Hardik Pandya.
Coming into the Indian Premier League as the captain of Gujarat Titans, Hardik hadn’t played any form of cricket for nearly five months. He did not even bowl until a few weeks ago. But at the Narendra Modi International Stadium on Sunday, in front of a 1,04,859-strong crowd, the Titans captain proved why he is still rated as one of the top all-rounders.
Shrugging off the pressure of playing in the final, Hardik first picked up three wickets (three for 17) to restrict Rajasthan Royals to 130 for nine and then chipped in with a 30-ball 34 as Titans chased down the total with 11 balls to spare. With the captain leading from the front, Titans defeated Royals by seven wickets to clinch their first-ever IPL title – that too, on debut!
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With the league stage of the tournament held in Mumbai and Pune, and the qualifiers in Kolkata, Titans hadn’t played any match at ‘home’ before the final and only had a look at the wicket on Saturday evening. So, there was clearly no home advantage, and as the expectations from the fans skyrocketed, Hardik ensured that Titans did not get overwhelmed by the pressure of the big-ticket final. He led by example.
On a rather used and worn out surface, Royals opted to bat after winning the toss – a decision that did not go in their favour. Even though the Yashasvi Jaiswal and Jos Buttler opening partnership saw Royals score 31 runs in the first four overs, things changed soon after the youngster from Mumbai dragged one to Sai Kishore at deep square-leg off Yash Dayal for 22 off 16.
With the opener gone, one would have expected Buttler and captain Sanju Samson to rebuild, but they failed to rise to the occasion. Captain Hardik played the master-stroke by bringing in Rashid Khan early, perfectly aware that both batters struggle against the star spinner, and that approach worked.
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Trying to play safe against the Afghan spin ace, Royals’ run-flow dried, and they managed only 44 runs in the PowerPlay. Even though Buttler targetted Lockie Ferguson – who clocked 157.3 kmph, the fastest ball of the tournament – with successive boundaries, Titans bounced back in style, with Hardik removing Samson with his second ball of the game. Trickily placed at 60 for two in 8.2 overs, Royals needed a good partnership between Buttler and Devdutt Padikkal, but both fell rather quickly, leaving the team in tatters.
While Rashid dismissed Padikkal for just two runs, Pandya removed Buttler in the space of three deliveries. Buttler surpassed David Warner to become the second highest run-scorer in an IPL season with 863 runs, behind Virat Kohli’s tally of 973 runs in 2016.
As Ravichandran Ashwin and Shimron Hetmyer failed to gauge Rashid and Hardik, Royals were going at run-a-ball after 14 overs. Hardik then caught and bowled Hetmyer, and with the big guns back in the hut, Royals had the young Riyan Parag to thank, whose late cameo helped the team reach the 130-run mark.
Defending a low total, the Rajasthan bowlers needed early wickets. While Prasidh Krishna cleaned up Wriddhiman Saha for just five, Boult removed Matthew Wade with just 23 runs on the board.
However, Shubman Gill (45 not out, 43b, 3×4, 1×6) made the most of two reprieves to keep Titans in the hunt. Yuzvendra Chahal dropped Gill in single digits, while Hetmyer missed a tough chance later in the evening.
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Gill put on a 63-run stand for the third wicket with captain Hardik. While Gill anchored the innings, Hardik played sensibly – hitting a four and a six off Ashwin in the 12th over before falling to Chahal.
When Hardik finally departed, Titans needed just 45 runs. David Miller (32 not out, 19b, 3×4, 1×6) tore into Royals bowlers, and with the Titans fans cheering out loud for the home team, Gill sealed the win with a six off Obed McCoy.
This was Royals’ first final since 2008, and the team wanted to pay a fitting tribute to its first captain Shane Warne, who passed away in March. Members of the 2008 title-winning team were invited to cheer for the Royals, but in the end, it was a heartbreak.
Leading Titans was the first captaincy role for Hardik, and the seasoned campaigner dazzled when it mattered the most, once again proving that when the going gets tough, he gets going.