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Hardik's wait to win over Mumbai hearts continues

When Hardik Pandya counterattacked with the bat the boos briefly turned to cheers, but another defeat meant the tensions remained

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
"When Mumbai Indians had zero trophies, he came in, and now they have five trophies," gushed Nikhil outside Gate 6 of the Wankhede Stadium as he held up a poster. It had photos of Mumbai Indians' IPL wins under the text "The Empire", alongside some of Rohit Sharma captioned "The Emperor". Rohan, who was heading to Gate 7, has tried to make it to at least two MI home games every season since 2016. The prime reason is evident in the poster he holds: "U Will Always Be My Captain - Rohit Forever".
Ahead of Mumbai's first home match of IPL 2024, the MI jerseys that were selling like hot cakes outside the stadium had "Rohit 45" written on them. Scores of fans who made their way over from the Churchgate Station or from Marine Drive wore MI jerseys with the former captain's name and number on the back.
The stadium was still slowly filling in when Hardik Pandya completed a lap of the ground. He spotted Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was out on ground for the pre-match show with the official broadcaster, and walked up to greet him. Just as they were about to go their own way, Sidhu pulled Hardik closer for a few animated words. Hardik was smiling through it all and gave a bear hug to Sidhu before joining his team-mates.
Mumbai were coming into this game having had a usual-yet-unusual start to their IPL 2024 season. They had lost two successive games - Mumbai have started campaigns with losses in the past - but, unusually, the fans, the MI faithful, were mounting pressure on their new captain Hardik for replacing the much-loved Rohit, having been traded in from Gujarat Titans. He had been booed in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, and whether the "home" crowd would back him was one of the storylines ahead Monday's fixture against Rajasthan Royals.
By toss time, the venue was more than half-filled - Mumbai's blue dominating. When Hardik was introduced, the crowd jeered him and cheered for Rohit, prompting Sanjay Manjrekar to ask fans to "behave!". But the crowd's hostility only increased when Manjrekar interviewed Hardik. Even when the names and photos of each player from the two XIs were displayed on the big screen, the loudest cheer was reserved for Rohit, and boos rung out when Hardik's name was announced.
Mumbai were asked to bat first, and so the crowd expected a Rohit special. Huge cheers rang across the arena as he walked out to open. They only grew louder when he came on strike for the fifth ball of the game. The anticipation - as he took guard, looked around at the field - only made the decibel levels rise even more. But Rohit was unable to keep out an away-curler from Trent Boult, and was caught behind first ball, thanks to a stunning dive from Sanju Samson.
Left-armers Boult and Nandre Burger ran through the Mumbai top order as 1 for 1 soon became 20 for 4. And so, Hardik found himself in the middle in the fourth over. More groans from the stands. The plot was perfectly set up for the new Mumbai captain to win the hostile crowd over with his heroics.
The sixth over, bowled by Burger was an eventful one, with Hardik in the thick of it. He pulled the first ball through square leg to get off the mark with a couple. He then danced down to go over off but got a thick outside edge over backward point for four. Undeterred, he charged again to power one through covers off the meat. And then, on the penultimate ball, he once again skipped down and smoked one that landed just short of the long-on boundary. At the end of the powerplay, he had the fans hollering in the stands.
He then played a couple of delicate glides to the deep-third boundary before exhibiting the power of his wrists to slap a carrom ball from R Ashwin - who had voiced his support for Hardik - away from the cover fielder for another four. With each of these deliveries, the MI flags in the stands went up, and so did the cheers for Hardik. It was like he had turned the tide and managed to win the crowd over. But it was short-lived.
The crowd was silenced when he miscued one to wide long-on off Chahal to finish on 34 off 21. From there Mumbai added only 49 more in the last 11.3 overs to post 125 for 9, their third-lowest total batting first at the Wankhede.
Unlike the previous two outings, Hardik did not open the bowling and had Jasprit Bumrah on from one end in the powerplay. Every over that he did not bowl drew cheers. But the boos were always hanging in the air. First, when he failed to hang on to a catch of Jos Buttler in the fourth over, despite a spectacular dive, at mid-off. And then in the last over of the powerplay, despite making a diving stop at cover off Bumrah. Rohit applauded the effort, but not a large section of the Sachin Tendulkar Stand.
Boult and Chahal's three-fors, followed by Riyan Parag's fifty, would extend the wait for Mumbai's first win of IPL 2024. And perhaps for Hardik, too, to make space in the MI fans' hearts.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Sudarshanan7