As the World Cup tour is about to unfold across India, a thought-provoking inquiry arises: how does the local context and social fabric of a place mold a cricketer and influence their game? Could Virat Kohli have been the same personality and player if he were born in Guwahati East instead of West Delhi? Similarly, what might have been the journey of Kuldeep Yadav if he hailed from Colaba in Mumbai? These questions are explored in this seven-part series. In the late 90s, a father in Surat grappled with a decision: Baroda or Mumbai? Determined to see his two sons pursue their sports dreams, he was willing to start afresh in a city with a rich cricketing culture. Eventually, he chose Baroda as their new home.
This crucial decision by Hardik Pandya’s father, Himanshu, would reshape the destiny of the Pandya family. Baroda emerged as the forge that molded the dynamic pace all-rounder India had sought since the days of Kapil Dev. The figure carrying the hopes and dreams of billions in this World Cup proudly bears the “Made in Baroda” insignia. Without Baroda, the narrative of Hardik’s journey would likely have taken a different turn. While Mumbai has its success stories of migrants, cricket hasn’t always mirrored its diverse milieu. Baroda, on the other hand, has a historical legacy of embracing, nurturing, and empowering outsiders.
Historically, when Vijay Hazare transitioned from Maharashtra, Baroda honored him with respect, accommodation, and the distinguished title of ADC to Maharaja Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad. This tradition persisted through the political integration of princely states post-independence. Consequently, when Zaheer Khan faced challenges in securing opportunities in Mumbai or Ambati Rayudu encountered issues with cricket authorities in Hyderabad, they sought refuge in Baroda. For the Pandyas, a modest Gujarati family, practical considerations such as the cost of living and language favored Baroda over Mumbai. Little did they foresee that history would emphatically validate the wisdom of their decision.
In earlier times, the rulers of Baroda, the Gaekwads, actively supported and engaged in cricket. The current Maharaj is himself a cricketer at the first-class level. During his teenage years, Samarjeetsinh Gaekwad was selected for the India camp alongside a young Anil Kumble. Regrettably, he couldn’t avail himself of this opportunity due to his school’s refusal to grant leave. His residence is the magnificent Laxmivilas Palace, boasting 100 rooms, a golf course, and the Motibaug cricket ground. A graduate of Doon School, Samarjeet is refined and articulate, choosing his words thoughtfully. He maintains a measured tone, and his passion for cricket is unmistakable. He even travels to England to witness Test cricket, expressing reservations about the potency of modern-day bats and the quality of pitches. Avoiding hyperbole, he speaks factually about his forefathers who played a pivotal role in establishing and financing the BCCI.
Samarjeet characterizes Baroda as a melting pot—a Gujarat city with Maharashtrian royalty. The city’s diversity is attributed to institutions like MS University, oil PSUs, and heavy industries that draw in new settlers. Nayan Mongia, a notable cricketer from Baroda, epitomized the city’s cultural diversity. When he kept wickets for India, the stump microphone would capture his exclamation “Aai ga” every time the ball missed the edge. This exemplifies Baroda’s unique blend—a Punjabi from Gujarat seamlessly switching to Marathi. Over the years, the inclusive spirit of this cricket-loving city is mirrored in the diverse names on the Baroda score sheet, encompassing More, Gaekwad, Singh, Narula, Hooda, Mongia, Patel, Pathan, Khan, Kumar, Sharma, and Pandya.