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Vikram Solanki: 'Hardik has a poise that is typical of winners'

Titans team director chats about the "opportunity to do something special", the men who matter, and the team culture

Nagraj Gollapudi
It's been a dream run so far for IPL debutants Gujarat Titans. They topped the league table, won the first qualifier, and are just one game away from lifting the title. Here, Vikram Solanki, the Gujarat Titans team director, chats with ESPNcricinfo about the experience.
The very first ball for Titans in the IPL was an event. Remember that?
Absolutely! That seems a long time ago, although, bizarrely, it doesn't seem so long ago if you see the point I'm trying to make. It's always a good starting point, isn't it? The first ball of the tournament, the first ball for a new franchise, and Mohammed Shami definitely delivered. An absolutely peach of a ball. I thought KL Rahul did well to nick it, to be honest with you. It was such a good ball. All credit Shami. He is confident in his skill and his art is exactly that, to try and challenge the batsman's defence, regardless of the format.
Titans beat Lucknow Super Giants in that game. The key batter was Rahul Tewatia, who straightaway showed that he had worked on his main weakness: playing outside off. You remember that reverse-sweep six against Ravi Bishnoi at the death where the target came down from 42 off 24 to 29 off 17? He said that he was confident of taking the match deep along with Miller because the situation was right. He had confidence in Abhinav Manohar and the way he took on Bishnoi turned the match.
You have mentioned two players that have been standout performers for us, amongst others, in David Miller and Rahul Tewatia. Rahul and David bat in a position that requires a certain type of character. Rahul has that in abundance, as does Miller. And the fact that he [Tewatia] was able to execute his plan, was calm under pressure, and had Miller as a good foil, as well as the point he made about being confident, and instilling that confidence that he has in a newcomer, Abhinav, speaks volumes for the sort of atmosphere, the environment that that we were fortunate enough to create.
One marked change in Tewatia's batting has been his off-side play, which has improved compared to 2021. Was that a factor you jotted down when you went for him in the auction?
If you were to ask me to give you an example of a summary of our season, it would be this: we have worked extremely hard, whether that be in practice, whether that be in games, we have been prepared to challenge ourselves. We've tried to play smart cricket, but we understand we will make mistakes. Not that we've been blasé about - okay, it doesn't matter if we don't get it right. It's not having the fear of making a mistake or not having the fear of failing. Those two components have stood us in good stead, certainly when we've got into tight situations in games.
As far as Rahul is concerned, I only admire the way he goes about his practice, he is a fierce competitor even at practice. He practices his competitiveness. If you were able to see some of the net sessions that Rahul takes part in, he is very much competing against his team-mates, against the bowlers that he's up against, it's always a contest. And your point about him developing his off-side play, it's all Rahul.


Titans' last-over finishes is another great story. While chasing, you have won seven out of eight with every game going to the last over. You have won three matches where the target was more than 50 runs in the final four overs. Five of the seven wins while chasing came when you needed ten-plus runs in the final over. It takes belief, no doubt, but I felt Titans' batters showed a presence of mind and calmness to not get swayed by pressure. Do you agree?
I would add to that, that it requires somebody to allow themselves to be in that position and allow themselves to be challenged in that position, whether that be in practice or not. They put themselves under pressure in practice so they can actually deal with pressure when it comes down to matches and the pressure situations. And it epitomises exactly how Rahul goes about his work - he puts himself under pressure in practice so he can then deliver when he is under pressure.
Was the last win, against Rajasthan Royals in Qualifier 1, a good example?
You could go through the season and you could go through a number of games where exactly that sort of scenario is played out and somebody else has put their hand up. You think of some of the innings Rashid Khan has played, David Miller has played, to get us across the line, it then becomes a habit in the sense that you are, as a team, confident under pressure. And at times we've delivered with the ball under pressure: you think of the second Super Giants game in Pune, we delivered with the ball under pressure. Shubman Gill in that game stood out. He was brave in his decision-making, he had the conviction of assessing the pitch and playing accordingly. He was able to put a competitive score on the board.
You think of all the noise around strike rates in T20 cricket and things, but Shubman was able to actually make an assessment of the pitch and what was required at that particular moment in that particular game, against that attack, with wickets falling at the other end. We posted a competitive total and then actually defended a par total. You'd agree that it was by no means a comfortable total [144] for us to defend, but then when they bowled in the fashion they did, that again is an example of allowing yourself to go to those pressure situations and trusting yourself and trusting your method, trusting your technique, trusting your game to the extent that you will get through.
No one has symbolised that attitude, perhaps, more than Miller. He has immense experience, has hit some of the fastest innings, but was not getting in the playing XI regularly the last few seasons. Again, why did you decide to buy him?
Like I pointed out, that's a difficult role to play as a batsman. I'm not in any way understating the role that perhaps the top order plays - you get guys that can take games away from you in the top order, and if they get in, they can single-handedly win games. [But] in my mind, the difficult job, the more pressurised job, is exactly that: those middle- and lower-middle order batters that have to actually assess what is required, be smart, take the game deep. Or make a decision at times not to take the game deep and actually press the button earlier because, for whatever reason, they think a bowler is somebody they've got to take down. They've got to be brave enough to take that decision and then have that conviction in their method, trust their technique, trust the fact that they've done the work that is needed, put themselves in that sort of pressure situation. I'd go as far as sort of saying it's the tougher side of batting in short-format cricket.
So, our approach in thinking of David Miller was we were confident of his qualities as a cricketer. He's displayed that time and time again. Our assessment was that he perhaps didn't have the opportunities or the consistent run that he needs, or anybody needs, if you think about it in those slots. They need a consistent run, and you need to instil that sort of confidence in them and a bit of backing in them. So that was our thinking when we went for Miller in the auction.
Is Miller the Andre Russell for Titans in that you feel safe when he's there at the end?
Miller is the David Miller of the Titans. At times somebody else puts their hand up. Of course, David has taken us over the line a couple of times and I'm sure he takes a lot of confidence, and the team takes a lot of confidence, when he's at the crease. Equally Hardik Pandya is an exceptional batsman, an exceptional finisher. He's a winner himself. He's led the team and has an imprint of his style of play on the team. We are confident as a group when any of those batsmen are at the crease.


These will be surprising stats for readers: Hardik's strike rate of 152.54 in the last four overs this season is the third-lowest for him in any IPL season, and he has hit only two sixes in 59 balls in this phase. Clearly it is a planned strategy to allow him to play a middle-order role?
You just think of the form Hardik showed at the start - he kept our innings together. The nature of batting in T20 cricket is at times you are going to go through these sorts of peaks and troughs.
As far as Hardik is concerned, as far as strike rate is concerned, what we've tried to instil in our planning group is a confidence that you make an assessment of what is required in any given situation, play the situation according to what you think is appropriate, what role it is that the team needs you to play. You make that decision. We will of course have conversations about it. And Hardik has done that.
Take the knock he played in Qualifier 1 - more often, it is Hardik that plays the lion's share in that sort of a partnership. But he absolutely assessed Davey was going well; he just needed to make sure that the partnership was sort of taken deep. And he played exactly the knock that he needed to play. Whether you view that as maturity from just his experience, whether you view that as a maturity and a responsibility because he is now captain, I'm not sure. He certainly made some good decisions. He has led the team well. He's led the team with good example. He has been very giving of his time, he's all in it.
What stands out is his composure. Barring the odd display of emotion, Hardik has maintained this I-am-in-control face. As a leader from match one to 15, where has he - as a captain - improved?
That would be, perhaps, a question for Hardik. For me, it was very apparent that right from the outset, from when we spoke to him about the captaincy, he was enthused by it. He is somebody that's clearly a passionate cricketer, he plays cricket in a sort of entertaining way that is contagious in its style itself because he's confident, he is prepared to take the fight on. But, to some extent, that point about encouraging people to not be afraid of making mistakes, not doubt themselves if something hasn't gone right, he's certainly been giving of his time in that sense, he's been giving of his experience in that sense. And he's got a lot of experience to share.
To me, he has a poise that is typical of winners. He's somebody that has clearly been through a great deal in his life, both as a cricketer and as a person. And he uses those experiences to sort of lead the way he does. I'm so pleased because he was very adamant that he wanted to do a really good job. He's a thoroughly good human being. And that that has sort of stood him in good stead as well.
If anything, the emotions are being shown outside the field by the partners of the players and coaches. Do you have to tell to please calm down?
Why would you? Emotion is good. It shows that you care. And this group does care. It cares about each and every individual. It cares about the team, as do the families. This bubble has been a really interesting situation for us. It has its challenges, of course, but it has benefits. There's no doubt about it.
Has it allowed the group to gel well too?
There's no sort of comparison to make, but it certainly feels that way. I wonder when there is no bubble, whether there'll be a small element of everybody thinking there was actually a lot of good about that sort of situation.


You will be aware that teams that have topped the league stage have won the IPL four times in the previous 14 years. What gives you the confidence that Titans are ready for something historic?
I wasn't aware of that - thank you!
We take confidence in the way we have played our cricket. We take confidence in the way we practice. We take confidence that this group is, again, I come back to those points that we made: we worked hard at practice today, we will work hard at practice tomorrow, we will play smart cricket. When it comes down to the game, we have been in pressure situations before and got over the line in very tight situation from nowhere at times.
This is our first final. We have an opportunity to do something special. But, to some extent, what we have achieved so far is something special. I would congratulate everybody that's been involved in this franchise for what we have achieved so far. There is more for us to achieve - not only this year, but as a group going forward as well. This is just the next step for us.
With stat inputs from Sampath Bandarupalli

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo