Under true leader Hardik Pandya, Gujarat Titans throw down the gauntlet
When Gujarat Titans named Hardik Pandya as their captain in January ahead of their maiden foray into the Indian Premier League (IPL), it was greeted with equal parts of excitement and scepticism. One school believed the Baroda all-rounder would be energised by the responsibility of leadership, the other was convinced it would weigh him down heavily at a time when he was looking to force his way back into the national set-up.
Clearly, the Titans management knew what it was doing, for what a masterstroke Pandya’s elevation has proved. The maverick has evolved as a true leader of men, marshalling his resources admirably, lending new meaning to the phrase leading from the front, and doing all that without losing his innate joie de vivre.
In becoming the first team to make the playoffs of IPL 2022, the Titans have laid down the gauntlet. With under a fortnight for the end of the league phase, the newbies are on course for a top-two finish, which will earn them two shots at a place in the May 29 final. What a story that would be, if the Ahmedabad franchise were to make a pitch for the crown at the first time of asking.
Actually, what a story this already has been. The Titans might not have been on the shortlist of the majority to make it beyond the first stage, but with a stirring run based on the core requirements of the T20 format, they have enthralled and exhilarated, fusing brazen aggression with an uncanny understanding of adaptability to conditions.
It has helped, of course, that the four venues used thus far have allowed their pace-heavy bowling attack to express themselves freely and with tremendous effect. The spreading of the 70 league fixtures across the Wankhede Stadium, the Brabourne Stadium, the DY Patil Stadium (all in Mumbai) and the MCA Stadium in Pune has necessitated the ground staff to prepare surfaces for the long haul, a task they have pulled off with aplomb, and that has played right into the hands of a bowling group spearheaded by Mohammed Shami and embellished by the genius of Rashid Khan, the pixie leg-spinner from Afghanistan who can weave his magic even on a pitch made of glass.
Pandya and Rashid were two of the three players the Titans acquired in the draft ahead of the February mega auction. Both have more than pulled their weight. Batting in the top order by choice in a marked shift from his role at Mumbai Indians where he slotted in as a finisher, Pandya might have tapered off somewhat after a blistering beginning, but he is still the second highest run-scorer for his franchise. With 344 runs from 11 outings, he has provided stability and flair, and even though he hasn’t been as much of a free spirit as in the past, he is still scoring at a very healthy 131.80 runs per hundred balls faced.
Throw in the fact that he is a near full-time bowling option, and the picture of a true all-rounder is almost complete. When he has bowled, Pandya hasn’t merely rolled his arm over or slipped in an over here, a spell there. He has often operated with the new ball, cranking up speeds in the vicinity of 140 kmph quite effortlessly, thereby lending the balance that the Indian team had sorely missed in the last couple of years when injuries left him playing as a specialist batsman.
As much as his batting and bowling, Pandya has impressed with his understanding of scenarios and his ability to get the best out of his colleagues. Plenty of work is usually done behind the scenes where Director of Cricket Vikram Solanki, the former England international, and head coach Ashish Nehra have formed a solid tandem, but Pandya has shown remarkable acumen and alacrity in thinking on his feet and keeping the mood light and fun-filled without compromising on intensity.
Rashid, of course, is the eternal banker, the man who seemingly doesn’t know what it is to have a bad night. Opting to sever his links with Sunrisers Hyderabad after a long stint with the 2016 champions, he has enjoyed time at his new home where he is the second leading wicket-taker, behind Shami, with 15 sticks. His economy remains ridiculously outstanding at 6.79 runs per over; crucially, he has played a couple of rip-roaring knocks in tight run-chases, smashing sixes at will to haul his team over the line.
The third player procured in the draft, Shubman Gill, too has come to the party. With a franchise high 384 attractive runs, he has provided dash and substance at the top, batting conditions effortlessly and reiterating his credentials as one for the future across formats. Gill has multiple gears to his batting, and his solidity has presented platforms that the left-handed middle-order duo of David Miller and Rahul Tewatia have cashed in times without number to overturn seemingly lost causes into sensational victories bordering on the fantastic.
Tewatia came in with form and confidence behind him, having caught the eye in the last couple of seasons with Rajasthan Royals. Miller was on the opposite end of the spectrum, his career at the crossroads after a dodgy run with Punjab Kings. The odd couple has extended its off-field chemistry to the middle, ensuring that in them and Rashid, Gujarat have a clutch of finishers who are the envy of every other side.
Shami has rediscovered his mojo, bowling fast and furiously with the new ball, striking crucial blows and taking it upon himself to take out the best batsmen in the opposition, but he is by no means a one-man pace army. International stars Lockie Ferguson and Alzarri Joseph, both fast and furious, have proved able allies while the unheralded Yash Dayal has emerged as the surprise package with his left-arm swing.
The sum of the parts has contributed to the Titans being a formidable whole. They will face different challenges when the tournament hits its homestretch, but on the evidence of what we have seen to date, there’s little to suggest they won’t be able to meet those challenges head-on.