Hardik Pandya
Captain Hardik Pandya celebrates Gujarat Titans’ win over the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Tata Indian Premier League 2022 game at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai on April 30, 2022. Pandya’s leadership has played a major role in helping the Titans soar to the top of the points table. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

IPL newbies Gujarat Titans could well be the new champions. They are hot favourites to win the Indian Premier League this year, having confirmed a place in the playoffs with dominant performances. With 10 wins from 13 games (before Thursday’s tie), the Titans have 20 points — enough to top the leaderboard.

Newcomers to the hottest Twenty20 cricket franchise usually struggle to find their footing. The intensity of competition is so high that it’s difficult for new players and new teams to hit their stride straight away.

The Titans threw that thinking out of the window, winning their first four games. They did lose some matches along the way, but those losses were never allowed to hurt as they returned to winning ways swiftly. Some of those wins were conjured from losing positions, which is proof of the team’s resilience and fighting spirit. So, don’t be surprised if they win Season 15.

What’s the secret to the Titans’ success? They have a fine array of talent, but more importantly, they have a leader who has marshalled his troops adroitly. Hardik Pandya’s captaincy certainly has been a significant factor in the Titans’ victories.

Meet captain Hardik Pandya

Pandya was an unknown quantity as captain when he took over the reins of the Titans. His IPL stint with the Mumbai Indians has been in the role of a power-hitter or a finisher. More so since injuries hampered his ability to bowl. So the question was how would Pandya fare as the Titans’ skipper.

I was sceptical since he came across as a happy-go-lucky person. How would the burden of captaincy sit on him? I wondered. Good players need not make good leaders. The genius of Sachin Tendulkar found captaincy to be a crown of thorns. Will Pandya turn out to be another Tendulkar?

Pandya set all such doubts to rest. He was a transformed cricketer when he led the Titans on their debut. The audacity of youth had given way to maturity. I marvelled at the new dimension to his game: patience and controlled aggression, not the traits I would associate with Pandya.

He walked in at No 4, an unfamiliar role, and played with discipline and solidity to steer the team into winning positions. Leadership comes with responsibility, and that seemed to erase the reckless streak in Pandya. With it came consistency. At times, when the situation demanded quick runs, Pandya effortlessly switched to his power-hitting mode.

The biggest surprise was Pandya’s bowling. His fitness has been the subject of speculation in the media, which was fuelled by Pandya’s inability to bowl in the IPL last year. That raised questions about his role as an allrounder in the Indian team, a slot which he lost to Venkatesh Iyer in white-ball cricket and Shardul Thakur in Tests.

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Pandya showed he’s ready to return to Team India as an allrounder. In the early games, he opened the bowling for the Titans and consistently clocked over 140kph. Just when we thought his back was healed, he missed a game with a niggle and didn’t bowl in a few matches. The suspicions returned: all was not well with Pandya’s back. He seemed to be aware of it as Pandya said he would bowl when required.

There’s ample truth in Pandya’s words. The Titans’ bowling has been so good that he didn’t have to bowl. Yet he bowled the occasional over to spike speculations. After all, the Twenty20 World Cup is round the corner, and Pandya wouldn’t want to miss it.

While uncertainty continues to swirl around his utility as a pace bowler, Pandya’s captaincy skills have come in for allround praise. Tactically, he’s been sound and hasn’t made major errors. Even when the team have run into crises, he has lifted the players’ spirits, which is the hallmark of a good captain. His enthusiasm is so infectious that it rubs off on his teammates as well. And that has translated into results as the Titans found different matchwinners in each situation. This is precisely why they have been able to win from lost positions. Much of that credit could go to captain Pandya.

If he scores consistently, Pandya could lay claims to India’s captaincy ahead of KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant. That’s when Rohit Sharma decides to step aside.