Hardik Pandya, Mumbai Indians and the warped idea of lPL loyalty | Cricket - Hindustan Times
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Hardik Pandya, Mumbai Indians and the warped idea of lPL loyalty

Mar 28, 2024 06:09 PM IST

At the heart of the problem, though, is the league itself and for that, Hardik isn't to blame.

Hardik Pandya got quite the ovation (pardon the sarcasm) in the Mumbai Indians vs Gujarat Titans match. He was booed, his actions were scrutinised on social media, the manner in which he interacted with Rohit Sharma came in for particular focus. None of it was pretty and after watching their attack getting hammered for a world record 277/3 runs against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, many watchers were expecting it to get worse when the Mumbai Indians play their first match at home on April 1.

Mumbai Indians' captain Hardik Pandya walks back to the pavilion (AFP)
Mumbai Indians' captain Hardik Pandya walks back to the pavilion (AFP)

The decision to appoint Pandya as MI skipper even while Rohit Sharma continues to lead India hasn't gone down well with many. Some think it may have something to with Rohit's huge fan base, rivalled only by Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli. Others feel that the Gujarat fans felt betrayed given how Hardik decided to leave them and join Mumbai. A few more felt that even if MI wanted to do away with Rohit, they could have gone with the other homegrown players, say Jasprit Bumrah (who has captained even India and is arguably the best pacer in the world) or even Suryakumar Yadav (who has established himself as one of the best T20 batters in world cricket).

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It might be one of these reasons or a combination of all of them but the prevailing conditions have given rise to a toxic cocktail that will surely do MI more harm than good.

At the heart of the problem, though, is the league itself and for that, Hardik isn't to blame. The Indian Premier League has never promoted team loyalty. Every three years, the league watches the spectacle called the Mega Auction.

The IPL management argues that this event leads to a redistribution of talent which maintains the balance of the league. The IPL team owners argue that they spend time and money building a squad only to be forced into the same process every few years, continuity be damned. For the fans, though, it is a thoroughly perplexing issue.

Do you support the team or the player? Can you support either one without the other? In India, teams have tried hard to build loyalty. Some like the Chennai Super Kings, Mumbai Indians and the Royal Challengers Bangalore have managed to build a fiercely loyal fanbase. They have done it primarily by retaining three of the biggest names in India cricket -- Dhoni, Rohit and Virat Kohli. Fans instantly knew which team they were backing and why.

Some of the other teams have hoped that individual players might draw fans in for their teams. It hasn't always worked but the aim has always been to try and find a leader or a player who will form an instant connect with all that the team stands for.

There are times when a new team forms a natural bond with its fans. And that was seen in the case of Gujarat Titans, a homegrown captain in Hardik and reaching the final in the first two seasons. The team lacked the mega stars but their performance won them many admirers. But when Hardik decided to move to MI ahead of this season, Gujarat fans were aghast. Why was he leaving a winning unit? Was he leaving Gujarat up a creek without a paddle? Did he not care about them at all?

On Hardik's part, the economic reasoning for the move was more than sound. Having been part of MI for many years, he also knew the management and the owners. It made sense. But try explaining that to the fans.

One might argue that fans are increasingly shifting their loyalties from clubs to individual sports stars. At Gujarat, following his success in the first two years, Hardik was in a position to increase his fan following to a point where it could have rivalled the big three in a few years. But by moving to MI, he and his fan base is clashing with the die-hard fans of Rohit, Bumrah and Surya and winning that battle is a tall order.

MI also needs to be careful of being able to retain its fans after the mega auction next year. If Rohit chooses to move away, then so could many of his fans.

This has happened in other sports as well. When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in 2010, it marked a turning point in the concept of fan loyalty. Data analysis revealed a significant shift in followership, with a considerable portion of Cavaliers fans transferring their allegiance to James and the Heat. The same was true when Lionel Messi moved to PSG from Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus from Real Madrid.

To win back the trust of the fans, Hardik will have to first and foremost win. And then he will need to do it with grace. In the madcap world that is IPL cricket, both things are easier said than done.

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