Hardik Pandya: The calm behind the storm
When Mumbai hosted the west zone leg of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2014, one lanky allrounder from Baroda raised plenty of eyebrows. Hardik Pandya's unbeaten 82 off 57 balls against Mumbai left the handful of spectators present at the Wankhede Stadium spellbound. John Wright, the Mumbai Indians head coach-turned talent scout was one of them.
It was hence a surprise to see Hardik's name missing from Baroda's squad for the Ranji Trophy opener against Bengal last December. Hardik's brother, Krunal, was with Baroda reserves, while Hardik was playing an Under-23 game. But throughout the day, Hardik and Krunal's father, Himanshu, was more interested in checking score updates from Perintalmanna in Kerala than watching the Ranji game at the Reliance stadium.
As the domestic season progressed, not only did Hardik break into the Ranji squad, but he also became a regular. He impressed each and every high-profile member of Mumbai Indians during their selection trials. As head coach Ricky Ponting went through the footage of more than 50 shortlisted cricketers ahead of the IPL player auction in February, he zeroed in on Hardik, who was subsequently bought by the franchise at base price.
Just a week earlier, Irfan Pathan had spoken highly about Hardik. The former India pacer and his elder brother Yusuf both tagged Hardik as "one to watch out for".
Yusuf was among the first opposition players to congratulate Hardik after his unbeaten 61 off 31 balls during Thursday night's crunch game against Kolkata Knight Riders at the Wankhede Stadium. While the burly Kieron Pollard was struggling to time the ball, Hardik's blitzkrieg snatched the game away from the visitors.
It was the second time in as many weeks that Hardik tilted the game in Mumbai's favour from a hopeless situation. More impressively, he did it against two formidable oppositions - Chennai Super Kings last week and Knight Riders on Thursday night to walk away with the Man-of-the-Match award.
While many have been taken aback with Hardik's exuberance and aggression, his coach isn't surprised at all. "He has always been like that. Whenever he takes the field, he is supremely confident about his abilities," Ajay Pawar, who has monitored the Pandya brothers' progress at the Kiran More Cricket Academy in Vadodara since their Under-14 days, told ESPNcricinfo.
"Over the years, right from a club to Baroda Under-23 teams, I have seen him standing up whenever the chips are down for his team. He has the reputation of being the go-to man in different situations. I am delighted he has been able to live up to his reputation even in the IPL."
Hardik wears a stud in one ear, which is often accompanied by a smile on the face. But he wasn't always this bold and expressive. During Baroda's Ranji clash against Mumbai, Hardik was too shy to even approach ESPNcricinfo to have his bowling style changed on his player profile page, and instead, sent a message across through Irfan.
From his confident appearances on the field and in front of the camera, it does appear as if the shyness has evaporated along with success. Pawar, though, stresses that Hardik will always remain grounded.
"His upbringing is such that he doesn't get carried away," Pawar said. "I am sure he will use the exposure and the experience of playing with and against so many international players to help him further enhance his skills."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo