The 13th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is less than three weeks away and while the coronavirus pandemic has time and again made headlines with a few cricketers testing positive recently in the UAE, Mumbai Indians all-rounder Hardik Pandya believes it is all about following the guidelines set by the professionals and focusing on enjoying the upcoming tournament rather than panicking.
Speaking to ANI, Hardik threw light on life in the bio bubble, gearing up for cricketing action after a year-long break, working hard on his fitness to go one level up post-surgery, the joy IPL will bring to the fans and most importantly on becoming a father.
"More excited than nervous because a good 10 months I have been training and looking forward to play so the portion where the nervousness comes or the pressure comes has gone away. I am just more excited to be on the field and implement what I have worked on with regards to my training part, the practice sessions.”
"Luckily we made a gym in the house and due to COVID-19 we weren't allowed to go out of the house so we focused and realised a lot of things that we can improve more. Because of all that hard work and preparation and thought process, it is just that I am very excited to implement what I have worked on," he explained.
As an all-rounder, the workload is automatically higher and Hardik also underwent surgery on his back. So has that meant falling down on the fitness chart slightly? Hardik believes otherwise.
"To be honest, I look after my back now as well. But it is just that if I was 7/10 fit before, now with the back surgery and all, if I want to be same or better than before, I had to increase my fitness one level. Throughout the lockdown period and even before that, I was focusing to ensure that if without surgery I was at a level with my fitness, I had to be one level up.”
"I know one thing that if you are fit, then things turn out pretty well. The focus was always to get one level up. Like you said, I need to do two things, so I keep that in mind. The trainers and all have helped me big time. Luckily, I have got the right people in my life who have guided me pretty well," he said.
So has he contemplated picking one format over another considering the workload of an international cricketer?
"It is completely dependent on how my body reacts. I have not decided anything and right now the number of months I have been out, I just want to keep playing sport as much as I can. But obviously there are my physios and trainers to take that call," he said.
Has the lockdown in fact helped extend a few careers? Hardik feels it is an individual thing and one cannot generalise.
"If you ask me, I really don't know how to put it. I have been out of the game for almost a year. So for me, just the lockdown helped us to realise a lot of things from understanding what are the goals and you know...more mature thoughts. I am assuming lots of cricketers would have also got time to fix their bodies just like I was looking after my body. All must be now eyeing to go back to the field and finally play because when we had our first practice session a few days back, it just felt so good. Batting, bowling, catching the ball," he smiled.
But then, has there been a sense of scare after a few members of the Chennai Super Kings unit tested positive? Hardik feels every player should just stick to the basics.
"For me it is just simple. Follow what the health officials say and follow what the team management says. I let the professionals do their work and if they say that we should look after certain things, I think we should just follow that and be on track. I realised one thing during this seven days of isolation that we have all been working hard for a long time. But one person can ruin everyone's hard work over the last 3-4 months. So, we are only focusing on cricket right now because Mumbai Indians is taking care of the rest.”
"I feel we are in one of the best franchise which any player can be in. I know a lot of things have happened with other franchises, but the way MI have looked after us, the way they have followed the protocols, our testing started 20 days before we were even planning to fly. So, for us, we didn't feel that scared as we had the MI management looking after that factor and we were only focusing on our game. Credit goes to MI for that," he pointed.
"Back of the mind we have to clear one thing out that we have to get back to cricket. Obviously follow the protocols and from the mind frame point of view, we have to get back and focus on the game. Lots of things will be going around, but as cricketers we will have to focus on our sport because we are here to play and enjoy."
But what about the empty stands?
"It will be a different experience, but we have all played Ranji Trophy without fans and T20 cricket without fans. So, for me, as a cricketer, only thing we focus on when we go in is the ball, or the player or whatever is happening with the XI players. Obviously the fans add to the cheering part and the support, but for us when we are playing, we don't see much difference.”
"For me, I don't think much will be different as we have played in the past without fans. My brother and I were talking during the lockdown time and we were discussing that for the fans, the IPL will be a cherry because no one has seen cricket for a while and people have been in difficult times. So this will be a stress relief for everyone as they will sit at 8 pm and watch the IPL for two months. So, everyone will get that satisfaction that something nice is happening. The fans will enjoy it," he explained.
Talking of enjoyment, even though teams are in the UAE, friendly meets have taken a backseat as no team member is allowed to get out of the secure environment. Hardik though doesn't have an issue with not being able to meet the likes of Virat Kohli and KL Rahul among others.
"It is okay. My MI players are there, my brother is there. For me, it won't make much difference. In the end when we go there (to the ground), they will be playing in the opposition team. So what matters for me is my team. Yes, off the field, they are my buddies. But when it comes to the ground, I like to play competitive cricket," he pointed.
The competitive streak in world cricket has been up for debate ever since the ICC called for saliva ban to fight the spread of coronavirus. But Hardik feels it is a non-issue in white-ball cricket.
"In white-ball cricket, it doesn't make any difference whether you put saliva or not. For me it is not something that will bother me," he smiled.
A conversation with Hardik can never be complete without mentioning his newborn son Agastya and partner Natasa Stankovic. For a person know for his flamboyance, how has it been doing daddy duties? Hardik says it just cannot be expressed in words.
"The flamboyant part comes with the style of fashion which I carry. That is the only reason I give the impression that I am flamboyant. And the daddy part, it is difficult to express in words, but one of my best times I have spent with him is the 15 days just before I had to join MI. It has been a new learning for me and pretty exciting time and made me realise a lot of things. My love for my parents was there, but now it has become more because after becoming a father I have realised what actual love is. It has been exciting for us," he signed off.