Cover Story: The resurgence of Hardik Pandya

It was a chilly January morning and Hardik Pandya — working on a third comeback in as many years — walked out of the nets in disgust at the Reliance Stadium in Vadodara.

He had just faced 30-odd balls, well short of the target set for the day. Suresh Kumar – a constant companion of Hardik since December 5, 2021 — looked concerned, standing behind the nets. Suresh, a seasoned physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach, was worried about Hardik picking yet another niggling injury.

Kiran More, in whose academy in the same premises Hardik took baby steps as a budding cricketer two decades ago, took his time, allowing Hardik to calm down before getting into a conversation.

READ: Hardik: Responsibility gets the best out of me

It wasn’t physical discomfort, but a lack of confidence while facing the short ball, a flaw that was exposed during India’s crushing loss to Pakistan in its T20 World Cup opener in October 2021.

 

“I told him to bat with a chest-guard,” More tells Sportstar. “Sunil Gavaskar wore it, so did Sachin Tendulkar, so there was nothing to be ashamed of. I just had to convince him to bat with it initially and once he had his timing back, he could do away with it.”

 

The self-doubts that had crept in, albeit for a little while, were understandable. Hardik was fighting to make a comeback as India’s premiere allrounder and also take up the challenge to lead the newly formed Ahmedabad franchise in the Indian Premier League.

Hardik had requested More to monitor his skill training during the three-month stint in Vadodara, which started from January 2. “Since I was working with him after a long time, I just watched him bat for the first couple of sessions. He was allowed to hit a limited number of balls then, but I told him that his only requirement was to keep batting longer.”

The more you hit, the better you get.

READ: How Gujarat Titans tamed the rest for title

While More and Hardik wanted to follow the good old mantra that works in every walk of life, the player’s injury-ravaged body needed a more measured approach.

It was to be a gradual process and Soham Desai, Team India’s lead strength and conditioning coach, had mapped out a recovery programme for the allrounder.

Suresh was roped in to execute the plan and the Chennai-based physiotherapist worked with Hardik in Mumbai for a few sessions in December before arriving in Vadodara on New Year’s Day.

“Work ethics is his boon and bane. The boon being he is a coach’s delight. He is such a workaholic that if you tell him to do five repetitions, he’ll do ten. The bane being sometimes he would stretch himself too hard, which is likely to affect his body,” Suresh says.

“Our job, predominantly, was to stop him from doing too much. Be it batting or bowling. He would exceed your expectations. I kept telling him if you are an Alto car, you can get serviced once a year, but you are a Ferrari, so every four laps, you need to take a pit stop.”

Hours after Hardik returned to Mumbai on November 16, 2021, after the T20 World Cup, he had a chat with Desai. Once Desai had finalised the roadmap, Hardik — along with elder brother Krunal and a few of his close friends in Vadodara — planned its execution. After the initial strength and conditioning phase in Mumbai, they shifted base to their hometown.

Hardik started batting in the nets only after the turn of the year. And till then, the focus was always on optimising his strength levels, conditioning levels, flexibility levels, and to be pain free while improving his running load and power development.

Over the course of January, his training intensity increased, and a weekly yoga session was added. He gradually started knocking more balls, graduating from 30-odd balls to 240-odd balls in each session.

He faced net bowlers, bowling machine, batted with tiles in the pitching area that offered a sharp bounce before getting into match simulation.

All those drills were crucial, but the match simulation was paramount as Hardik had not featured in a competitive game since India’s last T20 World Cup outing on November 8, 2021.

Hardik’s 28-ball 33 in a winning cause against the other new entrant Lucknow Super Giants in Gujarat Titans’ first match of the IPL season on March 28, 2022, was a just reward for the countless hours of hard work that he had put in, working meticulously while staying away from the limelight.

READ: The captain shows the way for Gujarat Titans

It was a remarkable recovery from that January morning of self-doubt and rustiness. While Suresh had recorded — on camera and in an excel sheet — every ball he faced or bowled — “even the drills”, Hardik and More were busy finding ways to work around the strict regimen and knock a few extra balls.

“The more you bat, the better you will be. No doubt we had to adhere to the workout routine, but we found a way to cheat a bit more,” More quips. “If you don’t hit at least 200 balls, you struggle to get into rhythm. Once we started doing that, it was easier to execute the minor adjustment we made on his back-lift.”

Besides keeping an eye on the workload in the nets, Suresh’s bigger worry was to monitor the living-room workload. Every morning when Suresh greeted Hardik, who had changed his body-clock and had become an early riser, he would see the player with a bat in the living room of his bungalow.

“Sometimes it would be Krunal or other close friends… He would have already batted 20-30 balls and that was nothing but workload,” Suresh says.

While Suresh learnt to factor in this additional workload at home, the biggest challenge was still there to be surmounted. Having regained his touch with the willow, Hardik had to resume bowling.

For a quick bowler dealing with a chronic back injury, bowling again was always going to be the most difficult phase. And during the first week, Hardik and Suresh followed Soham’s plan of just running in and stopping at the delivery stride — not bowling a ball — 12 times a day. After the first week, Hardik started bowling 24 balls and gradually increased it over the next fortnight. “His work ethic is fantastic. Besides regaining his rhythm, he worked extensively on developing an in-swinger, something that wasn’t his key weapon earlier. It didn’t take long for him to get it right,” More says.

All this while, Hardik’s core group was discussing how he was becoming more responsible, be it on the domestic front, or with his work ethic or with his public appearances. This newly developed trait of thriving under additional responsibility was to emerge as one of the highlights of his and Gujarat Titans’ stupendous maiden IPL outing.

Suresh recalls a session “about two weeks before he cleared the fitness test at the NCA” in March. “He just kept bowling all through the session. There was no break, and he was bowling at full tilt. We realised there was no stopping him,” Suresh says.

“He was comfortable. I kept telling Hardik that if an athlete is ready, he knows. It’s like a child playing with his favourite toy. Even when the child has a fever, he wants to play with the toy. The moment the child does not pick up that toy, you know something’s wrong. When Hardik wants to keep on bowling, I know he is fine.”

While More soon joined the Mumbai Indians’ IPL bubble thereafter, Suresh stayed on — at Hardik’s behest — in the Gujarat Titans’ bio-secure bubble till March 25. As Hardik parted ways with the team that had got him back in shape and settled in with his Gujarat Titans group, More and Suresh were sure about one thing: Never again will Hardik walk off the ground frustrated.

Hardik walked out of the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on May 29 with the IPL trophy.

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