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Feature

Hardik Pandya arrives in Ahmedabad, away captain at home away from home

A city experiences conflicting emotions as the man who led it to two successive finals returns in a different shade of blue

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
23-Mar-2024
On Friday evening, a team of specialists ran through their final checks around Motera to ensure the correct Gujarat Titans branding, along with a photo that has Shubman Gill at its front and center as the face of the team, was uniformly put up across the venue.
Titans have a new sponsor and a new captain. But it wasn't easy to tell, because the old one was also at the Narendra Modi Stadium, and he was wearing blue too - just a different shade of it. Dressed in shorts, a half-sleeve Mumbai Indians vest, dark glasses and a headband, Hardik Pandya carried off the vibe of someone ready for a beach party - relaxed and totally at ease with the surroundings.
He embraced Gill, the opposition captain, with a warm hug as they crossed paths upon entry. The curator, who had been working with his assistants to shave a layer of grass off the main pitch, waved from afar before walking over to greet Hardik.
Hardik lent a helping hand to Jayant Yadav, who had just finished his push-ups. Then as he glanced over to the Titans nets, he jokingly taunted Sai Sudharsan, who smacked a pull that crossed over into Mumbai's half of the ground. Rashid Khan and Josh Little looked around to find Hardik just behind them and they greeted him with high-fives.
Even if Hardik had expected to quietly soak in the feeling of being in the opposition camp, he couldn't have; he was being made to feel at home. And every hug, handshake and high-five was captured in high resolution. It was as if this was Hardik's home, and it was his duty to personally greet every single guest. Except this time, he was the guest.
Hardik then caught up with Ashish Nehra, the man with whom he had plotted and planned for two seasons. The one with whom he would jet around the ground on an electric scooter, overseeing nets in the center one moment, and then make a quick pit stop at the outdoor area to check on the bowlers.
It is unlikely Hardik wasn't flooded with nostalgia. This was, after all, the scene of one of his greatest triumphs as a new IPL captain in 2022, a venue where he announced himself as a fearless and aggressive leader protective of his team, where he'd insulated the younger players from external pressures to thrive in an environment of bonhomie.
It is the same environment that helped Hardik grow and mature in the leadership role, which thrust him firmly into a spotlight that he embraced with a smile. Even in his toughest moment - having to swallow a heartbreaking final-ball loss in last year's final to Chennai Super Kings - there was acceptance and magnanimity in defeat.
That lasting image of Hardik in Titans colors was so reassuring that the growing fanbase, so used to seeing him in dark blue, expected him to define his IPL legacy here. After all, he was a Gujarati boy leading a Gujarat-based franchise, doing things not many thought he could.
They had hoped he would be to Ahmedabad what MS Dhoni is to Chennai or Virat Kohli to Bengaluru. But the transactional nature of the IPL, where loyalties can change quickly, sometimes by chance and sometimes by design, has meant Hardik is now back to his roots, with the team that first gave him an identity in 2015.
None of this has swayed the average Ahmedabad fan, or so it appears. They're still vociferous in their support for the Titans, even if Hardik's face is on the back covers of their phones. Maybe they'll change them in due course. Or maybe they'll let it be for old times' sake.
It was impossible to not be swallowed up in the Hardik wave if you were inside the venue. Perhaps it was because Hardik was being Hardik, doing it all with a smile, before he joined his team for a light evening of training.
Mumbai began with the customary game of football, and once the whistle blew, Hardik was in the thick of things. He cheered for Rohit Sharma every time the ball went to him. Rohit bhai was simply 'Ro'. He stood there, whistling like a referee, mimicking kicks, handing out imaginary yellow and red cards - essentially like a kid having fun again, after being denied for a while.
Hardik is only slowly feeling his way back from the ankle injury that ruled him out midway through the 2023 World Cup. While he has been training since January, this session felt different given the occasion, and all the external chatter around Mumbai's captaincy.
After the warm-ups, Hardik put his game face on. He positioned himself right behind batting coach Kieron Pollard and had a ringside view of the nets. As Rohit strode out first, lugging three bats, Hardik checked them out one by one and then stood beside the nets. He admired the range of Rohit's shots, traced the trajectory of the big hits, wearing a look of bemusement when 'Ro' manufactured something extravagant.
After the session, Hardik went over to chat with Rohit as he walked out of the net happy and content. The two chatted briefly, before Hardik returned to take his position to oversee the rest of the session.
There has been a lot of chatter around the equation between Rohit and Hardik to the extent that body language experts have dissected every reel on Instagram. Is there tension? Are they friends? Is everything all right? Is there some unease?
At the pre-season press conference last week, the franchise's PR stepped in time and again to ensure there were no questions around the captaincy change. Hardik and Mark Boucher, the MI head coach, stayed mum and glanced sideways to the person directing the media interaction when uncomfortable questions were asked.
And so, while everything you see on social media is open to conjecture, at ground level, Hardik appeared a leader comfortable in his own skin, oblivious to external rumblings, doing it his way, with the same smile he bowled Gujarat over with.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo