For the longest time, he was known as the other Pandya. His younger brother, Hardik, had broken into the Mumbai Indians set-up in 2015, and after helping them to the Indian Premier League title he had gone on to make his international debut. Krunal followed Hardik to Mumbai in 2016 and despite having an impressive debut IPL season, he still found himself in the shadow of his brother. Not that he minded at all – he was perhaps the happiest for his brother’s success – but Hardik had charted the course, and the originals are always lauded a bit more than those who follow.
Krunal was unfortunate in that a labral tear in his shoulder early in 2015 had sidelined him over a year – perhaps had that not happened, he and Hardik would have charted that course together. The older Pandya sat and watched, unable to play competitive cricket, as the younger one went from strength to strength. But rather than sit and muse on what might have been, Krunal took inspiration from Hardik. He was nervous in the early days of his debut season in 2016, but grew more comfortable as the tournament progressed. And in 2017, he came into his own, out of the shadow of his younger, more exuberant brother.
By the end of the tournament, Krunal had played a crucial role in helping Mumbai lift the trophy. He is now an indispensable part of the side, his all-round skills lending them a balance that isn’t easily found. He is also building a reputation for bailing Mumbai out when the bigger, more reputed players struggle. And more importantly, he did that on the biggest stage – the IPL final against Rising Pune Supergiant on Sunday (May 21).
The regular statistics isn’t really a pointer to his real value. He has 243 runs in 11 innings, at an average of 34.71 and a strike-rate of 135.75. With the ball, his left-arm spin has yielded 10 wickets in 40 overs, at an economical 6.82. But apart from allowing the Mumbai management to utilise an extra batsman or bowler as per requirement, Krunal also brings incredible efficiency to the middle himself. In the final, when Mumbai were reduced to 79 for 7 after the big names and leaders had fallen, Krunal took charge, adding 50 runs with Mitchell Johnson for the eighth wicket, scoring a 38-ball 47.
As much as the tenacity he displayed, what was equally impressive was the skill involved. The Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Uppal isn’t like the Wankhede or the Chinnaswamy – it has larger boundaries. The pitch was difficult to bat on – something acknowledged by both teams after the match – with its uneven bounce. But Krunal hoisted Unadkat for a six in the penultimate over, reading his slower ball expertly, and then targeted Dan Christian’s final over, with a six and a four. Four of his six boundaries came in the last three overs, and it was his late burst that allowed the Mumbai bowlers something to bowl at. They eventually won by a single run.
Similar heroics were evident throughout the season. In the second Qualifier against Kolkata Knight Riders, chasing 108 for victory, Mumbai lost a few early wickets and were precariously placed at 34 for 3 when Krunal made his way in to the middle. He proceeded to guide the chase, and was unbeaten on a 30-ball 45 on a slow, sluggish Bangalore surface to seal Mumbai’s place in the final. He chipped in with the wickets as well throughout the season – his 3 for 14 against Gujarat Lions helped restrict them to 153. Mumbai eventually won the match in the Super Over.
After the final, Krunal reflected on the season, and how sound preparation ahead of the tournament had yielded results. “When the wickets were falling, I wanted to play (till) 20 overs because I was the only batsman. I knew if I stayed till the 19th-20th over I could attack,” he said of his knock in the final. “The pitch was gripping sometimes, and skidding at others. I just wanted to make sure I’m there till the end and give the bowlers a chance. In the end, it comes down to preparation. I prepared well before the tournament and the results came. I want to thank Nitin Patel who helped me out when I got injured 5-6 games ago. It’s a dream come true to be Man of the Match in the final.”
The effort he put in didn’t go unnoticed. Pundits lauded his improvement this year, with Ajit Agarkar, the former India paceman, going as far as to say he was Mumbai’s most important player. “There have been a lot of young players who you can talk about, who have done well, but Krunal Pandya’s progress from last season to this has been phenomenal,” he told ESPNCricinfo. “He had a good season last year, but you could see how much work he has put into his game. He came in tough situations at the start of the season, and bailed Mumbai out a lot of times with the bat. And when required, he did it with the ball. (He is) the most improved player for me, certainly, and probably the most important player for Mumbai this season.”
When Pune’s chase began, Krunal fluffed a sitter, dropping Ajinkya Rahane when he was on just 14. Rahane went on to score a 38-ball 44, and at the time, it seemed as though all Krunal’s good work had been undone, that Pune were cruising towards the title. However, he was thrown the ball for the 13th over, in which he gave away just four runs. He even should have had Steven Smith caught behind after the Pune captain attempted to help the ball along down leg. Parthiv Patel, behind the stumps, appealed loudly, but was turned down – replays suggested the ball might just have graced Smith’s glove. The over helped heap the pressure on Pune, and eventually, it is the pressure created that won Mumbai the title.
“Krunal has become mature now. Last year he was nervous to start with. Now he knows he is a core member of the squad,” said Rohit Sharma, the Mumbai captain. “He just goes out and plays freely. He has got no pressure. Of course, if you drop the catch, there is a chance of coming back and bowling a good over. That’s exactly what he did.”
However, he didn’t stop there. He praised Hardik as well, the brothers now being a crucial part of the Mumbai set up. “I think both Pandya brothers have something special in them,” he said. “When you see them on the field, they are so excited to play the game. They want to contribute in some or the other way. It’s just not about bowling or batting; they contribute in fielding as well which is such a critical part in this format.”
The next season of the IPL will be intriguing. A fresh auction is expected, with Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals returning to the squad. There are a lot of questions at the moment, but as to which of the two brothers Mumbai will retain – if they had the option – ahead of the next campaign remains to be seen.
The brothers’ importance for Mumbai this season has grown. But whether they play together or in separate teams in the future, one thing is for certain: Krunal no longer lives in Hardik’s shadow.