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The People vs Hardik Pandya - why, what, and the way out

He has been booed and abused in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, and it might get worse at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium on Monday

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
After Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, Hardik Pandya will now come to perhaps the most unforgiving crowd in India, at the Wankhede Stadium  •  AFP/Getty Images

After Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, Hardik Pandya will now come to perhaps the most unforgiving crowd in India, at the Wankhede Stadium  •  AFP/Getty Images

Footballers are apparently used to much worse, but Hardik Pandya might just be the first Indian cricketer facing sustained hostility from the crowds over a perceived misdeed. As a consequence of his move from Gujarat Titans to Mumbai Indians during the IPL off-season, Hardik has been abused by the partisan Gujarat crowd in Ahmedabad, booed by the neutral crowd of Hyderabad, and now faces the prospect of a partisan Mumbai crowd possibly not accepting him as their captain, and letting him know it.
Hardik is an ambitious, one-of-a-kind Indian cricketer: a seam-bowling allrounder who is international standard at both disciplines when fit. It's his ambition, in this case, that hasn't sat well with the fans. It is fraught to look at fans as one homogenised unit, but still try to see it from Hardik's point of view: some demand from him such lofty ideals as loyalty, some aim slurs with casteist connotations at him because of his dark skin and flamboyant appearance, some do both.
There is no precedent in Indian cricket for such widespread hostility, so there is no manual for Hardik on how to deal with this interesting phase of his career.
The BCCI should be thrilled that such intense loyalties have been formed even though the frequent auctions tend to end up discouraging those very connections between fans and players representing their cities. You can almost hear cash registers ringing every time you see evidence that those in Gujarat feel betrayed by a player who had come to them for an exorbitant price and went back for an undisclosed sum over that exorbitant price. That Mumbai fans feel their beloved captain (Rohit Sharma) has been usurped in a coup - despite his and his team's mediocre run over the last three years. There can be no bigger reassurance that the IPL moves people.
A lot of the outrage is performative - just for attention, notoriety, or even seemingly harmless laughs - but try telling that to cricketers who are so accustomed to getting love and adoration that it becomes a necessity for some of them. Also, just the sheer shock of it can be extreme because, as R Ashwin's comments on the situation tend to suggest, cricket is still primarily an international sport. They see themselves first as India cricketers and then IPL franchise representatives.
It can get to the toughest of them. It has got to those who are, or look and seem, tougher than Hardik. If you just look at the evidence on the surface, you'd think Hardik will sail through this. This is based on how agnostic to the result Hardik was after the thriller against Pakistan in Melbourne in the last T20 World Cup, in 2022. He had given a throwaway line about how he had got rid of the fear of failure, and I had asked him, almost sniggering, what he would have said if they had lost the match.
"Even with three balls left, I told the boys: 'even if we lose the game, it's okay'," Hardik had said. "I said I am proud the way we have fought in the game. We have been a team that has worked very hard individually, together, collectively. So even if we had lost the game, I would have still had a smile on my face and would have just said we gave it everything, and they were just good on that day.
"Somewhere down the line, I have accepted the fact that this sport will give me ups and downs. The more ups I have the better, but even the downs I will cherish because failure teaches you a lot of things."
You wonder if Hardik will find it just as easy to philosophise setbacks now, given how fragile his body has been. When a seemingly manageable strain when trying to field a ball in your follow-through can put you out for six months, you have a lot of free time to question your philosophies. When you come back to such vitriol, it can rattle you.
Hardik will probably be able to brush it off provided there is no heat on him inside the change room, selection meetings, and among former cricketers. But there, unfortunately, is some. The decision-makers are frustrated that he is simply not on the park enough. More than a few colleagues have privately questioned why Hardik stayed in the 'A' category of contracts despite playing such little cricket when two of his colleagues were denied retainers. Some of the vitriol from the pundits is almost like the closing of ranks by the veterans against someone who doesn't fit into their template of an India cricketer. And it's unsettling when casual fans start to talk about these very things.
After Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, Hardik will now come to perhaps the most unforgiving crowd in India, at the Wankhede Stadium. There is no guarantee Hardik will be booed by the Mumbai Indians faithful, but the fans there do have a history of not sparing even Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli in the past.
How Hardik reacts to this hostility can determine his and Mumbai Indians' season. The association between a fan and a live performer remains largely incorruptible - even if there is elaborate public relations and/or stage management. Kohli can divide opinions, but at the stadium, it's impossible not to connect with his limitless energy, his undying will to compete, and his ability to enjoy it all. You can't fake it when competing hard in front of a live audience.
The only way for Hardik to win over the fans in this period where his indifference to outcomes will be thoroughly tested, is to be his true self, and through performance. Just like a WWE wrestler in a heel phase (playing the bad guy), be so good at being bad that people begrudgingly, or perversely even, start liking you.

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo