'I see myself as a batting allrounder, but I'm working on my bowling'
When you speak to Hardik Pandya, he comes across as street-smart and speaks confidently and persuasively. ESPNcricinfo met him a few days before he was to travel to Australia with the Indian team on his maiden international trip. In Mumbai, playing the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in Baroda, Pandya had set the T20 tournament alive a week before, when he hit 34 runs in an over against Delhi medium-pacer Akash Sudan. Pandya, who made his India debut in the T20I series in Australia, first made headlines last season while playing a key role as an allrounder in Mumbai Indians' second IPL success. He talks about his journey so far.
Let us go back to the day when Ricky Ponting, Mumbai Indians' coach, gave you your first IPL cap before the match against Royal Challengers Bangalore.
It was amazing. I was expecting it every match. I was always the 12th man. But when I got the call I was expecting Ricky to tell me, "Hardik, sorry bro, you missed out." But on this day he walked out of the dressing room with a cap in his hand. He just said: "Good luck, mate. Go and express yourself. I know you are going to do well." And I did.
You had already formed a good bond with Ponting by then. Can you talk about the first net session he conducted with you?
He walked up to me and said, "What do you want to improve?" I said: "[Facing] the short ball." We did specific drills then. He explained the pull shot, upper cut, square cut, the hook.
Take the example of the pull. He asked me to pull the ball, after which he told me I was bending my leg too much and that in that position I could not pull properly. He told me my leg should be straight.
Did Sachin Tendulkar tell you anything specific?
After a warm-up at the Wankhede Stadium, he told me: "The way you are playing, in one and a half years you are going to play for India. That capability you have." I was like, whoa! That time I did not know I was going to play for India in seven to eight months. But when Sachin Tendulkar tells you that, I cannot describe what it felt like.
He told me, "You can play shots, so you can take time." Right now I am doing the same thing. I am not hitting sixes from the first ball. I am taking a good 15 balls before going for the big sixes. He used to tell me during the IPL that I can take time and cover up later. I did not understand what he meant then. Since I was batting at No. 7 the team would need something quick-fire, so I used to hit from the first ball. Now for Baroda, I am batting at No. 3, so I am getting a good amount of balls and time.
On your IPL debut you played a role in Mumbai's first win of the season, which came after losses in the first four matches.
Till the 18th over we had lost only three wickets. I was batting at No. 8. I did not expect I would even get to pad up. But then David Wiese took three wickets in an over. Rohit bhai [Sharma] got out, Polly [Kieron Pollard] got out and then Rayudu bhai [Ambati Rayudu]. Before me, Bhajji pa [Harbhajan Singh] went in to bat.
I finally faced my first ball, the last ball of Wiese's over, and took a single. Then I saw Abu Nechim was going to bowl the final over. Bhajji pa came up and said, "Jee le yaar, tu" (Enjoy yourself). He had watched me in the nets and was happy I was hitting big sixes. First ball: six. Bhajji pa, energetic and happy, said, "Waah, veere. Well done." Two balls later I hit another six. "Chhaa gaya tu," (You're on a roll) he said. That shifted the momentum towards us.
That eight-ball 21 against Chennai Super Kings had come in an away match when Mumbai needed 34 from the final three overs.
Before the match I did not want to play because I had a very bad catch in my neck. But the Mumbai trainer, Paul Chapman, said: "You seriously want to miss the game for this neck sprain? Who cares? Just have the painkillers and play."
Even 10 overs into the game I was not able to move my neck properly. But I had taken five painkillers. After the game I went to Chapman, hugged him and thanked him for pushing me and making me believe that pain does not matter. Imagine if I had not played that game. I don't know what my future would have been like. That game was the turning point of my career.
You took on Pawan Negi, Chennai's left-arm spinner, quite easily.
[Dwayne] Bravo was bowling really well. We felt the game was getting out of our hands because the ball was gripping [the pitch] and Bravo was bowling slower ones. He had given only four runs in the 18th over. When we saw Negi come to bowl, Rayudu said: go for it. The first ball from Negi I hit for six over long-on. MS Dhoni immediately said: "Negi, nahi, nahi, nahi" (Negi, no, no, no). The next ball I tried to reverse-sweep and missed. Rayudu was shouting abuse at me in Hindi. I was laughing even while he was shouting. The next two balls went for sixes and the match was over.
I've heard that Rohit Sharma, the captain, specifically asked for you to come in as the next batsman, instead of Harbhajan Singh, when he got out.
Bhajji pa was about go in, but Ponting asked Rohit and he made it clear that he wanted a proper batsman at the crease as the wicket was not good.
It does not really matter whether the captain had shown confidence in me. What matters is what you do at the time. I am always full of energy. I ran to Bhajji pa first. I share a very good bond with him. My room was next to him and he used to walk in any time.
After the match I was so excited at having won my first Man-of-the-Match award and the one for maximum sixes, I said: "Bhajji pa, do lakh toh aa gaye." (Bhajji pa, I've got about Rs 2 lakh [US$3000 approx]). He and Nita ma'am [team owner Nita Ambani] burst out laughing. He said, you don't get the entire money, you only get 20%.
What were you hoping to learn from your first IPL season?
I wanted to gain confidence. Before going into the IPL I was thinking: I am doing amazingly well in the domestic circuit, will I do the same in the IPL? That is why I used to work out like anything. I drained myself out and lost three or four kilos. One day Ponting told me: "You are practising a lot, but take a day or two off and it will be good for your cricket." I felt confident. I used to hear that after an IPL season a youngster can grow. That happened to me.
How has your kit bag changed?
I am a bat freak. Even if I have one match bat I carry eight bats to make my kit look heavy. Same with gloves: seven to eight pairs. I used to borrow bats till two years ago. I did not have the money. I did not have a bat to play in the Vijay Hazare Trophy before last year. I called Irfan bhai [Irfan Pathan] and he gave me two bats. Then last year I got a bat sponsor. Till then I was playing with whatever I had. You won't believe but I used to make my bats last for at least two years, strapping them several times.
Is it true that you were paid Rs400 ($6 approx) to play cricket till a few years ago?
Yes, two years back I was. There was no name for the tournament. It was just between villages. I would play for teams like Jhambuja XI. What was the fascination? Rs 400. My brother used to get Rs 500. For a week at least, life would be normal.
Do you consider yourself a batting allrounder or a bowling allrounder?
A batting allrounder. Batting has always been my priority. Till last year I saw myself as 60% batsman and 40% bowler. But after that I worked on my bowling and now I focus equally on both.
You have said you could be the batting allrounder India are looking for.
Definitely. I don't feel shy to say that, but I have been selected as a proper allrounder, so my aim is to fit that role. I can still improve my bowling. I have to work on my yorkers and slower balls. I need to get stronger, which will help me bowl quick.
Do you think people might think you are over-confident?
I back myself. You should be confident enough to go out there and express yourself. I don't wear any mask. I am like this. But I was not like this four years ago. Back then I did not have the confidence to speak to people. But in the last two years I have started speaking more confidently and that's because of WhatsApp. I have always wanted to speak in English. Even if I wasn't fluent, I'd still speak. People used to make fun of me but I continued to speak. From those kinds of things I gained confidence.
So Tendulkar was right in his prediction about you playing for India?
It's only been nine months [since he said that]. I am sure I am going to make my debut. This is my first international trip. I made my passport about five years ago. This is the first time I'll make use of it. I am well prepared. The challenge will be to get used to the bounce while batting. I am bowling good enough to make use of the Australian pitches. I am sure I am going to put on a good show.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo